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 Filed as : Wine TipsNewsInterviews

Northern Composure

Apr 19, 2011
Northern Composure
Natalie MacLean is a hedonist--yet one down-to-earth, productive wine writer.

natalie-maclean-winebottles-hiSometimes it's the little decisions that send our lives spinning in an unanticipated direction. For Natalie MacLean, it was attending an after-work wine-tasting class with her husband (after realizing that Spanish lessons and playing golf were off the table). Within a few years MacLean became one of the most successful and prolific wine writers in the world.

She's also long been ahead of the curve with wine conversations online. She's distributed an e-newsletter to thousands of loyal readers for more than a decade; she's won numerous awards for her writing in several Canadian and American magazines and newspapers; she has her own iPhone app that helps people pair food and wine; and she's the author of the widely acclaimed book Red, White and Drunk All Over. MacLean just finished writing her second book, due out this fall--and amidst her recovery from the editorial process, she took the time to speak with The Daily Sip™.

Even with all those successes and a soaring wine-writing career, MacLean still has a most down-to-earth approach. She stays focused on providing good wine advice without taking herself or the subject matter too seriously. Words to live by, whether one's talking about wine or anything else.

Read on for our full interview with Natalie MacLean, and keep an eye out for her new book. She promises it's much like the first--which took her to several of the world's wine regions...or a series of overindulgences, depending on how you look at it--and will inspire you to seek out unique, affordable wines made by interesting people.

Bottlenotes: Tell us about your next book that you just finished. First start with what you aimed to do with Red, White and Drunk All Over, and what led you to go through the painful process or writing a second book (coming out this fall)?
Natalie MacLean: I took the same approach in that it's narrative driven, not really how-to. It's really based on seeking out the most obsessive-compulsive personalities that I could find in the wine world--and you sneak the wine education in there in little bits and pieces. It's story after story, and every chapter is a different region in the world. My quest is to seek out terrific bargain wines, but also to meet these people. So it's not simply where are the cheapest wines, but where are the best stories and reasonably priced wines. That quest for value and taste leads me to Sicily, Stellenbosch, Niagara the Douro, Mendoza...oh, it's all a blur now. But it was a lot of fun. I also enjoyed the food, so there's quite a strong food-wine-pairing component to that, and just being my natural, hedonistic self and discovering all types of combinations because I just don't know when to stop. It's a similar approach, but with new regions and new people.

Tell us about your first exposure to wine. And where did the realization that you could make a career of writing about wine come in?
I grew up in a Scottish family on the east coast, where they drink beer and whiskey. Wine wasn't on the table. I didn't even really drink at all until I met my husband--he really did drive me to drink. I met him in business school, and he liked to order a bottle of wine with dinner, so I decided to try it. And I do remember our first big night out at a very humble Italian restaurant, and he ordered a Borolo. And I just thought, 'What is this?' It was the first time I really focused on what was in the glass and enjoyed the whole thing--and thought there's something going on here that I want to explore.

After that, we were living in a fairly big city, and having just graduated we wanted to do something together in the evenings because we didn't have any kids. We tried learning Spanish, but after a long day of work it's too tiring to conjugate verbs. We're both A-plus personalities, so golf was out; access to long, iron clubs was not going to work. But then I saw a local community college flyer advertising a wine course, and I thought we could just go drink wine after work and maybe learn a little about it. It turned out to be the most fun we'd ever had taking a course together. We met other people, and it was just so much fun. I continued with that just for the heck of it. Wine just sucked me in. It just had it on every level. There is the intellectual level if you want it, there's the history, the agriculture and the commerce. You could do a liberal arts degree with wine as the hub. Then there's the sensory level, and the pairings--how does this smell and feel? And then there's the pure hedonism--the buzz. There's a reason we don't have orange juice critics. Wine is alcohol, and I'm not afraid to admit it: I love it because it hits me on all levels.

Was there anything you were taught in that first course that you later discovered through your travels and tastings wasn't terribly accurate?
The course was an easy and introductory kind of course. It wasn't that there were things in it that were wrong, it's that I didn't understand with my whole self--my mind and my body--things that sank in later when I experienced them. I don't really remember or sink my teeth into a region or really feel like I know it until I've been there. I don't know if that's the mental association of being in a country and knowing the land and tasting the food and tasting the wine and talking to people, but then I remember the whole structure of it--whether it's a complicated appellation system or the labels or the obscure producers. I can fit it all on my mental map. But standing in a liquor store or sitting in a course? I think that's a great starting point, but it doesn't sink in for me until I have that full sensory experience of having been there.

You started an e-newsletter long before it was the established business it is today. Are you at all amazed at the following you've developed, as well as those earned by several other wine e-newsletters-- including ours--that have come after yours?
It's pretty amazing. I came from the high-tech world before I started writing about wine, so I believed in having an online presence. I started the website in 1999 and the newsletter in 2000. It was just because it was an inconvenience to keep emailing my articles to people who wanted to read them. I said, 'Quit bugging me, I'm just going to email them to everyone who says they're interested,' because I'd write an article for a city magazine that someone across the country couldn't read. It just started as a way of cutting down my administration, and emailing everybody all this stuff, all the time. Then it became an organized effort, then a website where I could archive stuff--and it just grew from there.

Today, I can't believe how quickly it's all moved in terms of the Internet, mobile and social media and everything else. It delights me. Wine was made for these interactive, one-on-one kinds of experiences.

So, in one way it surprises me in terms of how fast everything has developed; in another way it hasn't because wine and those who love wine are so suited to the online world. It just makes a lot of sense--you can see why it works for wine, and maybe not for other categories.

So many wine writers get tripped up in commenting on each other's taste buds and opinions. You've remained non-controversial, yet incredibly influential. How do you strike the right balance, and not get swept up in the debates that seem to plague wine journalism, blogging and message boards?
Live in a town where nothing happens and you don't meet anybody.

Maybe this is just as in life, so as it is online: What is your MO? For me, there's a reason I'm not in a combative profession--I was going to go to law school, and decided not to. I'm here to enjoy. I also, apart from the things you're mentioning, I don't go after expose pieces or the politics of wine. It's not because I'm a wimp, it's because what I'm interested in and what makes me passionate is pleasure and civility and covnersation. Honestly, I don't want that negative energy, I don't want to get involved in it and it's a waste of time. I'm so darn busy and I need to focus my energy on the stuff I can do. And there's so much positive you can do these days, whether it's devoting your energy to a newsletter that educates people, or a book, or creating a mobile app or being on Twitter helping someone find a wine pairing. That positive energy that you send out comes back to you, as does the negative stuff. That's a life view, and I'm not sure to how it differs from being online to how you operate in life.

Do you think Canadians have a different appreciation or taste for certain styles or varieties than Americans do? Is there a difference between eastern and western Canadian tastes, the way there is south of the border?
Our split comes between English Canada and French Canada. Just as you'd expect, French Canada is very much French wine, but also other Old World regions like Italy and Portugal. English Canada is very much Australia and California--and our own wines, which are kicking some good sod up here. We have a very robust wine industry, but it's small; there isn't a lot of distribution into the States. I think the bifurcation here is much more language based.

But in terms of Canada versus the U.S., I'm not sure there's a huge difference. I've looked at trends, such as what are the hot varietals? Pinot Gris, Rosé--those are your fast-growing things. The stats tend to be similar when I compare what comes out in either a Canadian study or U.S. study. The trends, I find, are similar.

Does living and working under the Liquor Control Board of Onatario--the state-run wine-sales system, similar to Pennsylvania's--make it difficult to get new or interesting wines you might want to try?
That's a mixed answer. I believe, in the run of a year, they stock 13,000 wines. Some are there year round, like your bigger-volume wines, and they have a biweekly program where they release new wines that have smaller volumes and tend to sell out. In my mind, there's a huge variety at the LCBO that certainly satisfies my tasting needs. In other words, I don't run out of wines to recommend, or feel like, 'Gosh, I could be posting a lot more reviews if only they would sell more wines at the LCBO.' I can't keep up with everything--but they do have really well organized tastings, so I like that. So we can only hypothesize.

But we can look at Alberta, where they've privatized. The benefit there, so the studies have said, you get stores specializing in one region, like Tuscany. If you have that model and you're a Tuscan lover, you probably want that kind of depth in one region. It's not to say the LCBO doesn't have a good or wide selection of Tuscan wines, but it would be even deeper with a privatized system. But there are also studies that show Alberta prices went up. It's really controversial if you're here, because the LCBO turns over a lot of tax dollars to our government--but on the flip side, people say competition would bring better selection and more profitability to independent owners. It's not clear, but my bottom line is I have enough to taste and I have a wide variety. If I average it daily, it's about 25-30 wines a day, so I have lots to recommend over the course of a year--even at a low ratio of one to five or one to ten in terms of what I taste to how many I recommend.

One of the things that people enjoy about your writing is that you don't hold back with the humor--especially when it comes to excessive consumption. And yet, you're a wife and mother, which, honestly, probably wouldn't go over as well in the U.S. Do you think Canadians are just more laid back, less uptight, less puritanical about alcohol than Americans are?
They're just too polite to say anything! [Laughs.] I'm really not trying to advocate going on a bender, but be honest about what it is that draws us to this marvelous drink--and that's one of the components. But so is feeling a little buzzed, because you've had a couple glasses and you're enjoying the conversation and the evening is going well. It's not for everyone, but I really didn't get a lot of backlash [on my style], or I guess maybe I don't hear from the people who don't like it. But they can be very vocal: I get about 200 emails a day, so I hear about everything from everybody. I have one group I call The Wine Lovers For Better Grammar--there are 78 of them and they tell me every time I misplace a comma. So people aren't afraid to tell me exactly what they think.

[But] there's been very little of that type of criticism. I don't think you're going to pick up a book called Red, white and Drunk All Over if you're an abstainer or someone who might find that double entendre offensive. I guess they're just not in my tribe, and that's ok--not everyone needs to be in your tribe.

Let's run down the list: You're writing for magazines and newspapers, wrote a second book, have a blog, you tweet faster than someone on Fen-Phen, you have an iPhone app, not to mention your life...How do you do it all?
I get an energy from it. I love to keep all those plates spinning as best I can. While I was writing the book, some things did have to slide--so I wasn't writing for as many magazines as usual. It's just balance. Whenever I get to a point where I feel like I have no time left, I stop saying 'yes' to things that are optional. Whether it's an event or a tasting, I just say 'no' for a while until I feel like I have balance and the kind of time I need to work and be with my family and sleep.

Do you have a tried-and-true hangover cure?
Usually my cure is to take several Advil, then stomp out of the room when I'm told I'm being a drama queen for complaining about my headache. Call my mother and ask her again if she loves me. Then go for a nap. It works.




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