Alison Napjus ’99 Helps Oenophiles Decide What to Uncork

Hotelie is Wine Spectator’s senior editor and tasting director

Napjus seated drinking wine.
Alison Napjus enjoying a glass of rosé at a Parisian restaurant. (Photo provided)

“Like a stallion out of the gate, this shows an initial explosion of power, in the form of mouthwatering flavors and fine texture, before quickly settling into an elegant gait,” Wine Spectator critic Alison Napjus ’99 recently wrote of a rare 2008 Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne, which she rated 97 out of 100. “The racy acidity is seamlessly knit, buoying the lacy mousse and flavors of cassis, toasted brioche, and tangerine, with accents of candied ginger, hazelnut, and fleur de sel lingering on the long, creamy finish.”

As the magazine’s senior editor and tasting director, the Hotel alum has one of the wine world’s most visible jobs. In addition to overseeing reviews of some 16,000 wines each year (at least in normal, non-pandemic times), Napjus personally evaluates the offerings of France’s Champagne and Alsace regions, as well as wines from South Africa and parts of Italy. On the magazine’s staff since 2000, Napjus also writes articles—one in July parsed new labeling regulations for Shampanskoye, Russia’s answer to Champagne—and makes tasting and educational videos for winespectator.com.

She writes in a way that’s fun, interesting, and educational, whether you’re a novice or someone who’s highly educated about wine.

Cheryl Stanley ’00, who teaches Intro to Wines

“She’s driving interest and knowledge in these regions by what she’s tasting and how she’s describing the wines,” says fellow Hotelie Cheryl Stanley ’00, who teaches the ever-popular Intro to Wines course on the Hill and knows Napjus from their undergrad days. “Her tasting notes and articles are easy to understand. She writes in a way that’s fun, interesting, and educational, whether you’re a novice or someone who’s highly educated about wine.”

Even in an age when resources abound online, Wine Spectator—with its venerable track record, accessible language, and easy-to-digest 100-point scale—remains a potent force in the industry, Stanley says. In her own days as a retailer in California, she recalls, “as soon as they posted the new scores, you’d check your inventory—because you knew that the top-scoring wines would sell out.”

Napjus sitting at a table behind a line of wine glasses.
Napjus at the 2013 New York Wine Experience. (Photo provided)

Even during the pandemic, tastings (safely distanced) have continued at the magazine’s Manhattan headquarters—and, Napjus says, the educational offerings on its website have seen a big surge in traffic. “People have been taking the time to look wines up and learn more about them,” she says. “I don’t know if that will continue as we go back to a more social setting, but I hope so.”

Developing a passion for wine

Napjus didn’t grow up in a particularly wine-obsessed family—though it is a big Cornellian one: her parents, Chris Napjus ’62 and Barbara Dohren Napjus ’63, are alumni, as are sisters Elizabeth Napjus ’93 and Catherine Napjus ’01. While she loved her beverage-related courses during undergrad (which included a semester abroad in Florence, Italy), her longtime dream was to own her own restaurant, and after graduation she worked as a manager at Manhattan’s tony Tribeca Grill.

Eventually realizing she had a passion for wine, she took an entry-level job at Wine Spectator, thinking she might soak up knowledge for a few years and segue back to dining. “I wanted to surround myself with people who were educated about wine, who knew more than I did and whom I could learn from,” she says. “And here I am, 21 years later—and even though I’ve vastly built my knowledge, I feel like I’m still surrounded by people who know more. That’s one of the things I love the most about the job.”

While Napjus has long covered wines from France and Italy, South Africa is a relatively recent addition to her portfolio—and she’s been pleasantly surprised. “They have their own unique character, but also a lot of the fruit-forward nature that will appeal to people who like California wines,” she explains. “It’s something a little different but not too far outside their comfort zone, and there are great values.”

Napjus in a vineyard during a visit to a winery while studying abroad in Florence, Italy, in 1997.
Napjus in a vineyard while studying abroad in Florence, Italy, in 1997. (Photo provided)

Napjus has also encouraged readers to explore Italian wines beyond the familiar regions of Tuscany and Piedmont. “Right now, there’s a lot of growth in the U.S. for wines from Sicily—spearheaded by wines from Mount Etna, which are very terroir-driven and have a kinship with Burgundy,” she says. “But Sicily is a big island, and they make a lot of varieties. So if you don’t want something in this Burgundian style, there are bigger reds from Nero d’Avola [grapes] and crisp whites from Inzolia and Grillo. I think it’s true of most Italian regions that you can find something unique if you’re willing to open a bottle and try something new.”

Asked if her job—tasting and thinking about wine all day—keeps her from enjoying it in her off hours, Napjus says: absolutely not. But does she have favorites? “The diplomatic answer—and the true answer, honestly—is that there are so many types from all over the world, and so many styles, there’s something for every occasion,” she says. “But I do tend to enjoy European wines the most; Italian wine, for sure, is regularly opened in our house.”

Unsurprisingly, Napjus constantly fields wine queries from friends, family, and strangers—including, as she notes with a laugh, one pal who regularly taps her expertise in real time. “I have a good friend who lives in London,” she says, “who does not hesitate to WhatsApp me pictures of a wine list and ask for recommendations while she’s out to dinner.”

Published October 5, 2021


Comments

  1. Elizabeth Schultz, Class of 2000

    Alison is extremely knowledgeable and a great example of how hard Hotelies work on their craft!

  2. Emily Goldfischer

    Love this profile! Such a cool career path.

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