Home Wine Business Editorial Hospitality Turning the Tables on Natalie MacLean

Turning the Tables on Natalie MacLean

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By Carl Giavanti

Natalie MacLean, named the World’s Best Drinks Journalist by World Food Media Awards, has also won four James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards. She’s the bestselling author of Red, White and Drunk All Over, hosts the New York Times-recommended podcast Unreserved Wine Talk, and offers popular online wine and food pairing classes at www.nataliemaclean.com. She lives in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.

Describe your first inspired wine experience.

I still remember the taste of my first great wine. As I raised the glass to my lips, I stopped. The aroma of the wine rushed out to meet me, and all the smells that I had ever known fell away. I didn’t know how to describe it, but I knew how it made me feel. 

I moistened my lips with the wine and drank it slowly, letting it coat my tongue and slide from one side of my mouth to the other. The Brunello trickled down my throat and out along a thousand fault lines through my body, dissolving them. 

My second glass tasted like a sigh at the end of a long day: a gathering in and a letting go. I felt the fingers of alcoholic warmth relax the muscles at the back of my jaw and curl under my ears. The wine flushed warmth up into my cheeks, down through my shoulders and across my thighs. My mind was as calm as a black ocean. I wanted to find the words to describe that experience. 

How did you start writing about wine?

While working in high tech, I spent evenings completing a sommelier certificate so I could graduate before my son, Cameron, was born. During maternity leave, I called the author of many wine books for advice on how to start writing. 

“Just don’t expect to earn a living from it,” he told me, after we’d spoken for a few minutes. “Treat it like a weekend hobby, sweetheart.” Sweetheart.

My face burned furnace-hot. Cameron was sleeping in his bassinet beside me in the living room. 

There was a long pause on the phone. “Thanks for your advice.” I screamed silently into my son’s teddy bear.

I knew that creating a business out of a passion for wine wouldn’t be easy, but that conversation fueled the fire inside this little “sweetheart.” The next day, I pitched an article about finding wine and food pairings on the web to a local magazine. The editor asked if I had published previously. I said yes, thinking of my high school newspaper. Thank goodness she didn’t ask me to send samples. 

The day the magazine came out, I ran to the store and flipped the pages furiously to find my column. There it was — and my name — in print! I was a real writer now. I loved writing and being home with my son. For this introvert, leaving a high-octane office was like bathing a mosquito-bitten body in calamine cream. 

I was a nobody from nowhere who created a career out of nothing.

Your new book Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation and Drinking Too Much moved and inspired me as a boomer male. What advice do you have for women committed to a career in wine?

On my podcast, Unreserved Wine Talk, I asked Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, this same question as I wanted to know myself. 

“Be more serious about business. Be ambitious,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many business cards I have from professional women who call themselves Wine Chicks, Wine Goddesses, Wine Divas, Wine Dolls. Language can marginalize.”

Ouch. My email signature was Chief of Wine Happiness. As women, we’re taught to be caregivers, which is easily manipulated. Is the desire to be liked or, at least, to not appear threatening, part of why women in the wine industry belittle their own skills and experience with cutesy names? 

I asked her if we make wine more accessible with self-deprecating humor.

“No, not unless you’re already in a position of power.”

True, we don’t see those monikers with men: Harvest Hunks, Wine Warlocks or Stainless-Steel Studs.

Then there’s the title of my book, Wine Witch on Fire. Language can marginalize, but it can also reclaim lost meaning. As I wrote my story, I also wanted to counter the old narrative about women as wicked witches, just as I wanted to be professional without depersonalizing myself.  

For me, a witch is a wise woman who has been through the fire and come out on the other side stronger, wiser, fiercer. 

You’re a case study in survival on so many levels. Can you share how you found the strength to persevere?

The winemaking term “dry extract” refers to the essence of the wine’s flavor components when all the moisture has evaporated. Dry extract is in us too, as people, our deepest reserves of strength and resilience. It’s what’s left after life has burned us down to our essence. I want readers to hold on to that, to know that they can rise again.

Your book has hit #1 on Amazon for wine. Why are readers resonating so strongly with your story even though their lives are different from yours?

Memoirist Glennon Doyle advised, “Write from a scar, not an open wound.” But why even write about it after the healing is done? Poet Sean Thomas Dougherty had the answer. “Why bother? Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.”

I needed the distance of years to be able to reflect on what happened so that the book is useful to readers and not just a misery dump.

Even if they haven’t experienced divorce, they’ve likely felt loneliness or a longing for love. Even if they haven’t been chased down by an angry mob online, they may have felt isolation and fear. My memoir helps them experience those feelings though a different story and learn how someone emerged from a tough situation with deeper roots.   

While this book deals with serious issues, there’s lots of humor. How do you strike a balance between the two?

I didn’t want to trivialize the serious subjects, but it couldn’t be one long bleak narrative. We need comic relief in both books and life. Something has to brighten a book when the subtitle is brought to you by the dismal letter Ds: divorce, defamation and drinking too much. (The publisher’s marketing team insisted that we take out destitution and delirium.)

They say that comedy is pain plus time. I certainly couldn’t have injected humor into this book 10 years ago when I was in the middle of the situation. But now, I can stand back with the wisdom of time and see how some of the more absurd things that happened border on the comical. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending. 

Please share some of your tips for moderating wine consumption that are in the book.

I ask myself, “What was the thought just before the thought, ‘I need a glass of wine.’” If it’s about relieving stress and not enjoyment, then I try to find another way to do that: go for a walk, take a bath, watch a favorite show.

When I open a bottle, I’ll pour half the wine into a clean, empty half bottle and recork it. It keeps the wine fresh for another night, and I’m more mindful about how much I’ve consumed.

Here’s an excerpt from Wine Witch on Fire, which has more tips on moderating alcohol consumption.

Why pair books and bottles?

Just as pairing wine and food can make wine more accessible to many people, pairing wine with books can do the same. 

That’s why I created a free companion guide that has questions that not only relate to the book, but also to broader issues about drinking, sexism in marketing and dealing with trauma. It also recommends wine to pair with the book and other books. You can use the guide in a group or just read it on your own. You can get the free wine guide here.

You were ahead of the curve with Unreserved Wine Talk, which the New York Times selected as one of the 7 Best Drinks Podcasts. What do you enjoy most about podcasting?

The podcast lets me talk to the most fascinating people in the wine world and ask them extremely impertinent questions that I wouldn’t dare ask at a dinner party. (What did you learn from your biggest career disaster? What’s something you believe about wine with which many people would disagree? What would you put on a billboard in downtown San Francisco?)

Podcasting is an intimate medium: your voice is in someone’s ears and, together, you create the theater of the mind. 

What are you working on next?

I’m continuing to develop my online wine and food pairing classes for both beginners and advanced students. Many people in the industry, including sommeliers, find them helpful as they’re often not a core component of other programs that focus on grapes, regions, history, etc. We cover everything from multi-course gourmet dinners and take-out food to spicy dishes and international cuisines.

What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?

Respond as quickly as you can when a journalist reaches out to you or has a follow-up question on your pitch. We’re often working under tight deadlines. Also, use their preferred medium of communication. For me, that’s email (natdecants@nataliemaclean.com), not phone.

Which wine and food writer would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?

I’d love to open a bottle of California wine with the late, great M.F.K. Fisher. As I developed a taste for wine, I wanted to find words to describe the way it infused all my senses. I had long admired the way Fisher brought together mind and body with her stories about the slow sensual pleasures of the table. 

When she was asked why she wrote about food rather than about more “serious” subjects such as power and security, she replied that, through food, she was really writing about love and our hunger for it. When bread is broken and wine is drunk, there is a communion of more than our bodies.

As Fisher said, “First we eat and drink, then we do everything else.”

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Carl Giavanti

Carl Giavanti is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s celebrating his 14th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media)

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