The first American woman to earn the title Master of Wine is still spreading her oenophilia.
For Mary Ewing-Mulligan CW’71, pouring wine is a form of theater and drinking it is a “fascinating intellectual pursuit,” she says. “It involves the fields of biology, chemistry, marketing, history, art, religion, travel. Then, you cannot ignore that alcohol is psychotropic and makes us feel good.”
The first American woman to earn the title Master of Wine—a designation bestowed by the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine after candidates pass a series of theoretical and blind tasting exams—Ewing-Mulligan is passionate about helping more people feel good about wine. “I’d like them to be more openminded, try new things, think for themselves, not get stuck in a rut,” she says. Whether by writing columns, authoring books, or running her own wine school, Ewing-Mulligan’s career has been devoted to that goal. Her expertise in and championship of the industry has won her vats of awards, including a recent nomination as Wine Enthusiast magazine’s Educator of the Year and a lifetime achievement award from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
It may be an all-consuming part of her life now, but growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, she “tried wine on only a few special occasions, like weddings.” Always more bibliophile than oenophile, she was an English major at Penn while contributing to the Daily Pennsylvanian, where she discovered that journalism wasn’t as good a fit as she had hoped. But her brief pursuit of newspapering would serve her well upon graduation, when she applied for a job at the Italian Trade Commission in Philadelphia. “The office was involved in promoting Italian products and they needed a native English speaker,” she says. “The guy who wound up hiring me was a former journalist and he loved the idea that I had considered that as a career.”
With “zero knowledge” of Chianti and Soave, she quickly picked up pointers while organizing tastings for writers and industry folk. “The people in the business were so encouraging and helpful,” Ewing-Mulligan recalls. “They were always trying to explain to me how this wine was supposed to taste and what was special about that grape variety.” She later wound up as the director of New York’s International Wine Center (IWC), which offered tastings and classes for wine collectors and enthusiasts.
In the late 1980s, Ewing-Mulligan began studying for the prestigious Master of Wine (MW) exam. (Slightly more than 400 experts currently hold the title, which indicates wide and deep knowledge of the art and business of wine; another 269 boast the title of Master Sommelier, which is conferred by a different organization and focuses more on table service and food and wine pairings.) Since there wasn’t any formal schooling in the US, Ewing-Mulligan attributes her education to “all of those wine tastings over the years.” She needed five attempts before she passed, successfully acing the theoretical section on her second go-around but requiring another three stabs at the wine tasting segment.
That 1993 triumph “changed everything for me,” she says. “It’s a certification that you have tasting expertise, that you have extraordinary knowledge about winemaking. … It’s a big shot in the arm—and it feels so good.” Among other things, the hard-won honor emboldened Ewing-Mulligan to buy out her partner and transition IWC to a vocational school that offers the courses necessary to prepare students for the MW exam.
“I was the first female in America to become a Master. A year later, I was still the only one. Then a third year and so on,” she says. “Ten years later, one of my students finally became the second female in America and, man, that was one of the most gratifying moments in my entire career.” In total, more than a dozen of the school’s students (male and female) have gone on to join the MW ranks. “I guess I’m just a teacher at heart,” Ewing-Mulligan says. “Everything I’ve done has been inherently educational.”
Her educational approach is perhaps most evident in Wine Style: Using Your Senses to Explore and Enjoy Wine (2005), a book she wrote with her husband Ed McCarthy, who was also her coauthor on Wine for Dummies (1995), and which places emphasis on what she believes really matters to wine drinkers: taste. Rather than grouping wines primarily by varietal, Wine Style approaches contemporary winemaking via broad flavor profiles (rich, oaky whites; fresh, spicy reds) that sometimes cut across grape types. This acknowledges the modern reality that many cult Napa Valley Cabernets, to take just one example, often bear closer resemblance to high-end Brunellos or top-tier Rhone Syrahs than to other Cabernets from, say, northeastern Italy or the Bordeaux bargain bin.
“Different people love wine for different reasons—and for many reasons,” Ewing-Mulligan says. “For me, perhaps first and foremost, I like to think about the nature of how it works in my mouth.” Another one of its appeals, she adds, is that “since we tend to drink it with food, wine promotes more moderation than other alcoholic beverages.”
As the world of winemaking witnesses the consequences of climate change—from Northern California’s catastrophic fires to the global warming that has made it possible for England to produce some well-regarded sparklers—Ewing-Mulligan emphasizes that “wine is a product of the earth that has been transformed by generations of individuals and as a result it represents a sense of place.” Although that heritage means change can sometimes come slowly, she points out that “winemakers are working methodically toward their best choices for a new future.”
Meanwhile, Ewing-Mulligan revels in the continued exploration and sense of adventure. “I love to examine bottles, to look at their labels,” she says. “If you give me any excuse, I will try a new wine. If I’m at a restaurant and the server says we tasted this wine in our staff meeting and everyone was really excited about it, that’s enough of a reason for me.”
More than anything, wine drinking should be fun not fraught, she adds. “You don’t need to hit a home run with everything you taste.”