Wines & Vines

Margaret Smith – wine enthusiast

Margaret Smith – wine enthusiast – Column

Larry Walker

Over the past three decades, Margaret Smith has helped make wine a household word across the west. Much of that time she was with Sunset Magazine, where she promoted wine (with food) as a basic element of entertaining. The magazine’s publishers must have appreciated her taste. She was put in charge of buying wine For the Sunset Wine Cellar.

How did this passion for wine start, I asked her during a recent interview?

“I was interested in food before I discovered wine,” Smith said. “I grew up on a family farm in Oregon. The kind of place where we had the water boiling before the corn was picked. I worked as a cook in summer camps for several years. I learned to cook on a ‘beans budget’,” she laughed.

She attended what was then Oregon State College, majoring in nutrition, then ended up in general science.” I thought I might become a nurse,” she said. But then came marriage and children.

“We lived in Modoc County and I learned how to cook duck and other game,” she said. The Smith family then moved to the Bay Area in the early 1960s. “That was when I began to learn about wine,” she said. “I fell in love with Pedroncelli Zinfandel and bought it by the jug.”

Sunset Years

She joined Sunset in 1973 after working part-time “as a hobby” with Woodside Winery. “Romancing food and wine was an important part of Sunset’s entertaining,” she said.

In 1989 she left Sunset to begin her own consulting company and became even more directly involved in wine.

She helped organize Women for WineSense and served as executive director from 1990 through 1993; she was the founding executive director of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) from 1992 through 1997, working to organize the annual Zinfandel tastings which have become a huge success with the public.

In 1995, she bought Toyon Hill Press from her partner with the purpose of creating wine-friendly cookbooks. To date, the series includes “Companions at Table,” “Rhone Appetit” and the “Zinfandel Cookbook.” A wine-friendly cookbook focused on American sparkling wines is in the works.

Toyon Hill Books are self-distributed for the most part, although the Wine Appreciation Guild carries them and they are available through and a number of independent bookstores and winery tasting rooms. Smith’s husband Roger Smith handles all the computer work for the company. “They are selling well. Like most publishing ventures, we aren’t getting rich.”

Food and Wine

So how does it work, this business of matching wine and food, I asked.

“It doesn’t have to be so terribly complicated. Each palate is so different and everybody can find their own match,” she said. “In general, there are Certain pairings that work better than others. I try to make the books very general, to paint with a broad Stroke.”

Smith said it was distressing to her that many chefs pay little attention to wine, even in restaurants which should be more wine friendly.

She agreed that too much detail on wine and food pairings could be intimidating. “What I’ve always tried to do, going back to my years at Sunset, is to get people to slow down and play the game. To really think about how something tastes. So many people don’t even think about what they are eating.”

Slowing down rang a bell and I asked her if she knew about the Slow Food Movement? “Oh, yes,” she laughed. “But I have time to get involved.”

Slow Food

(The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 in Italy by Carlo Petrini. It is now an international organization dedicated to rediscovering the richness and joys of regional cuisines. As Petrini recently put it, “Let’s regain lifestyle wisdom and free ourselves from this mania of velocity that one day could cause us, too, to become an endangered species. Let’s start to socialize at the dinner table…to allow us not only to eat, drink and celebrate, but also to converse, trade culture, and enjoy things that are good and pleasant.”)

“The fact that I haven’t had time to find out more about the Slow Food group is characteristic of how people are living today,” she said. “While people are probably more aware of good food and wine now than ever before, they often don’t have or don’t take the time to stop and enjoy them.”

Smith believes this lack of time to smell the roses, as it were, is keeping many people from enjoying better food and wine. “People now don’t even take the time to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. I’m afraid that younger people who work such long hours think of wine as a special occasion thing. They have meetings to attend, work to do. They have wine when they go out to dinner or entertain on the weekends. On the other hand, my husband and I have a bottle of wine with dinner every day. If people can share wine together, they can work out a lot of problems,” she said. “I do like the idea of let’s slow down and enjoy.”

Smith is an avid gardener. “That is probably what really got me interested in the grape and wine business,” she said. “I love to garden.”

She also enjoys travel, especially within the United States and, back when she had more time, she and her husband used to backpack often. The Smiths have two sons. Mark Smith is a winemaker at Rudd Estate in Napa and Ray Smith is chief engineer for College of San Mateo’s television and radio stations in San Mateo, Calif.

Smith has always been a Zinfandel fan and quite often that evening bottle of wine shared with her husband is a Zinfandel. “But like most Americans, I like variety. I’m finding some wonderful older Cabernets now, 20 or 30 years old that are just exquisite.”

After all these years of working with wine and food, does Margaret Smith have a mission statement, to use that sometimes overworked corporate phrase?

“My mission is the same now as it has always been. One of the great pleasures of wine is to slow people down enough to get them acquainted with each other. That’s my mission.”


Toyon Hill Press, 118 Hillside Drive, Woodside, Calif. 94062; Tel.: (650) 851-2319 or (800) 600-9086; Fax: (650) 851-5579; e-mail: margaretsmith@; the web site is

Slow Food, 14 Via della Mendicita Istruita, 12042 Bra (Cn) Italy. Tel.: 011-39-172 419611; Fax: 011-39-172 421293; e-mail:; the web site is

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