Meet the Member: Natalie MacLean

Natalie MacLean is a wine writer, broadcaster and Brunello lover. She’s also the only person to have won both the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation and the M.F.K. Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing from Les Dames d’Escoffier International. Amanda Barnes interviews her on her career in wine, how digital media has transformed wine writing and education, and her next book on the subject.  

What are your earliest memories in wine? 

My earliest experiences with wine should have driven me into the frothy embrace of beer forever. Growing up in Nova Scotia, I’d be given one undrinkable glass of wine to toast the New Year, and another at Easter – usually from the same box. During the rest of the year, my Scottish family knocked back beer and whisky.

When did you come to love wine?

I remember the night I tasted my first good wine. My future husband Andrew and I had just graduated from a Masters in Business Administration and were enjoying our ‘wealth’ relative to our student days. Our favourite place was a small Italian restaurant around the corner from our apartment. The first time we went there, the owner – a tall, burly man with fierce dark eyes – asked us if we’d like to try the Brunello. We thought at first it was a regional dish, but it turned out to be a red wine from central Italy. We were relieved not to have to tackle the wine list: neither of us knew much more about wine than which fluffy animals on the label we liked best.

When the owner opened the bottle tableside, the pop of the cork seemed to pierce something inside me and relieve a little pressure. He poured the Brunello, a rich robe of mahogany, into two tumblers with none of the pretentious sniffing and approval ceremony. “Chimó!” he said, and bustled off. 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. My second glass tasted like a sigh at the end of a long day: a gathering in, and a letting go. That was the first of many happy evenings there and we drank that Brunello for a year. A pilot light had been ignited inside me; over time it would grow into the flames of full-blown passion.

How did you become educated about wine?

As I developed a taste for wine, I wanted to find words to describe the way it lightened and lifted me. I had long admired the way Colette, Dorothy Parker and M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food and drink. They fused mind and body with their narratives, and I reread my favourite passages until I was drunk on their prose.

While Andrew and I were still in the bloom of childless romance, we decided to take an evening course: wine appreciation. Drinking at night was something we could handle after a long day’s work, and perhaps I’d even learn how to describe those feelings. That introductory course was enough for Andrew, but I wanted to learn more. I completed a sommelier diploma. Despite this formal training, my real wine education has largely been through the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. Most of the time, I learn something interesting not because I ask an intrepid question, but because I stumble on something accidentally. I’d love to say that I was born with a great palate, but I was just born thirsty.

How did you start out as a wine writer, and how did your career develop in the early days?

The thought of making my part-time passion into a full-time career didn’t occur to me until I hadn’t slept soundly for about three weeks. Shortly after our son was born, I was on maternity leave from my job as a ‘web evangelist’ for a supercomputer company. One day, shopping at the local supermarket, I picked up the store’s food magazine. It was beautifully illustrated and packed with recipes, but [there was] not a word about pairing them with wine. 

Desperate to reactivate my brain, I rushed home to call the editor with my idea for a story about where shoppers could find wine matching information on the Internet. I figured that I knew just enough about both areas to say something. But only in a sleep-deprived state could you believe that jumping from a career in high tech marketing to writing about wine made any sort of sense. The editor asked if I had been published before, and I said yes, thinking of my high school newspaper and praying she wouldn’t ask me to send samples. Luckily, she didn’t. Instead, she gave me that assignment and several others to follow. I felt that a bolt had slid back and the door to my future life had opened. Six months later, when my maternity leave was over, I decided not to go back. I had already given my heart, mind and liver to wine. 

How does digital media help?          

The Internet, more than any other tool, has exponentially increased my knowledge of wine. Not only can you find the most obscure wines and producers online, but you can also connect with other people via websites, social media and mobile apps. I find these connections essential when I’m writing about a topic on which there isn’t yet much published, or about a region that’s too far away to visit before my story is due. I love connecting with wine lovers via TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and Instagram, as well as on my website.

How have you seen the global interest in Canadian wine change over the years?

There’s widespread interest in Canadian wine, just as there is in other artisanal food and drink. Consumers are searching for new taste experiences, which they find in Canadian wines. Our wines have a signature unlike any other – zesty and vibrant, yet also savoury and complex.

And how have you seen the domestic interest in Canadian wine change? 

We’ve moved past the Shania Twain/Celine Dion syndrome – singers who first had to make it big internationally before they were accepted at home in Canada. There’s more confidence now that we can produce marvellous wines that can go head to head with the world’s best in quality, taste and affordability.

And what do you think is most exciting about Canadian wine today?

There’s lots of experimentation with new sites, grapes and blends. This builds on a growing expertise of what works in our unique soil and climate. This applies to every region across the country, including Nova Scotia where I grew up.

You’ve been a champion of making wine writing accessible and enjoyable for everyone. How do you do this?

I keep my writing conversational and personal, perhaps too much so at times. However, that’s enabled me to find my tribe online. I’ve launched free mobile apps with bar code scanners and label readers to access my wine reviews and food pairings, as well as a real-time store inventory and geo-data that tells consumers which liquor store closest to them has the wine stock and how many bottles.

I also teach wine courses online (including The WineSmart Course and Pairing Wine & Cheese with Style and Attitude). These online video courses make learning about wine accessible to everyone regardless of where you live, your mobility or your confidence level.

And finally, what’s coming up for Natalie Maclean in the 2020s?

I’m finishing my third book about wine with Random House. Although wine is the hook, it’s not the story. This book will be memoir-driven, and will dive into the new challenges that women face in the wine industry, online bullying, sexual harassment and other issues that haven’t been examined as they need to be in our industry.

I’m also continuing with my podcast Unreserved Wine Talk, which Apple named as one of the Best Listens of 2019. I love interviewing winemakers, sommeliers, and especially with wine writers, as they tell the best stories. I invite members to get in touch with me if they’d like to be on the show at [email protected].