Karen Williams is the founder and owner of ACME Fine Wines in Saint Helena, Napa Valley, a gallery-style wine showroom with a focus on first–release Napa Valley wines plus highly regarded wines of the world. Karen studied psychology at the University of Georgia. She was introduced to wine in 1986 when she was visiting her parents in Missouri—and began to develop a vision of her own retail tasting room, a retail space that would be extremely different than most.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Karen Williams for WineSpeed in August 2019.
Karen MacNeil: What was your first job in the wine industry?
Karen Williams: After moving to San Francisco in 1995, I worked at Ashbury Market in their wine department.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
KW: Debbie Zachareas. She was the wine buyer for the Wong family who owned the Ashbury Market. I learned a lot from her in the way of building relationships in the industry and I admired her knowledge and her easy-going, strong and confident style.
KM: You live and work in Napa Valley. What other wine region inspires you the most and why?
KW: The Champagne region inspires me most because it is vastly different from my home surroundings in Napa including the grape considered “King” here: cabernet sauvignon. From the grower Champagne houses to the premium brands of the Syndicat des Grandes Marques, the effort and the results inspire me every single time I taste a complex, refined and effervescent glass of Champagne.
“Don’t let [food and wine] match-ups be at the cost of enjoyment.”
KM: As a wine buyer and retailer, you have to taste many wines. How many wines have you tasted in your life time–an estimate?
KW: As a loose estimate for professional, work-related tasting: more than 12,000 wines tasted. With personal tastings included, I bet we might double that number.
KM: I’m sure at least some of your customers ask you about food pairings when they buy wines from you. Are you pretty specific about pairing wine and food or are you a drink-and-eat-what-you-like kind of person?
KW: For me, a dining experience is most pleasurable when the wines are chosen according to varietal and style preferences, not whether they are classic or recognized pairings. Don’t let the match-ups be at the cost of enjoyment. It is vital to not overpower a dish with a wine and vice versa.
KM: Is there anything you do to continue to train your palate?
KW: Tasting every day at the shop helps to keep my palate trained, as well as conducting blind tastings whenever possible because it slows down the process of discovery, helping to hone your sensory skills
KM: You’ve talked about how important it is to you to present wines from very small producers––producers who probably wouldn’t be able to get their wines into big retail stores. How do you find these top-notch but tiny wineries?
KW: ACME started with the desire to help popularize micro-brands of the highest quality. Throughout our 16+ years in business, that reputation has grown to a level where small brands know this is our niche; it is our purpose and still our passion
KM: Describe a typical day for you.
KW: A typical day at ACME is spent working towards three main objectives: tasting a new great wine or a favorite from the past, helping clients know and learn about the wines in our portfolio, and growing as a business with my current team of highly-skilled professionals.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
KW: Even though I know many beautiful examples and I can definitely appreciate them, I tend not to be a drinker of dessert wine (or sweet desserts, in general); they just aren’t a choice I make for my dining experiences.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
KW: Launching a business that continues to see exponential growth while contributing to this amazing community and bringing fine wine into the homes of collectors who cherish those wines.