“The industry is tight-knit and exclusive”: Wine writer Natalie MacLean on sexism and competition in Toronto’s wine scene
The long-time oenophile dishes on her new memoir, the wine industry’s #MeToo moment and why she hates “wine mom” culture
Natalie MacLean was once named the world’s best drinks writer by the World Media Food Awards—but the prestigious title didn’t come easy. The journalist and wine connoisseur recently penned Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much, a candid memoir that documents her dealings with sexism, alcoholism and nasty competition inside Toronto’s tight-knit wine and wine-writing industry. Published in May, the bestseller is the latest in MacLean’s growing oenophile canon, which includes her podcast, Unreserved Wine Talk. Here, she dishes on the best and worst parts of writing about wine, how she limits her intake on the job and why she despises “wine mom culture.”
What exactly is a “wine witch on fire”?
In my favourite childhood stories, witches like Glinda the Good overcame challenges and emerged stronger. That’s what I’m trying to capture with my book—even though the title may bring to mind an angry cat woman who drinks too much. The memoir chronicles my life in 2012. My husband unexpectedly asked for a divorce, and I was dealing with constant online trolling from other wine writers. Between those events, and probably because alcohol was readily available, I found myself drinking excessively. The book explores my journey to rebuild my career.
How does one becomes a wine journalist in Toronto? Asking for a friend.
I took a sommelier program while working in tech, just because I loved wine. When I went on maternity leave in 1998, I used what I learned from that program to pitch a story to the now-defunct Loblaws food magazine about how to create good wine pairings. That turned into a regular column, and I was hooked. I never went back to my tech job.
So you just went at it alone?
I reached out to the top Canadian wine journalist at the time. I called him while my infant son was sleeping and asked if he had any advice. He said that the industry was tough and that I should “treat it like a weekend hobby, sweetheart.” I kept my cool for the call and then screamed into my son’s teddy bear. That fuelled a fire, and I started calling editors. I was a nobody from nowhere. But I landed stories in the National Post and Chatelaine, and then I was in.
Twenty-five years later, what’s a day in your life like?
Some parts are exactly what you’d think: attending wine-tasting events, receiving bottles in the mail every day. I joke that one of these days the UPS worker may finally ask to come in and taste them. But there are some less glamorous parts too.
The Toronto wine industry is tight-knit and exclusive: you’re expected to go to frequent social events, drink often and be an extrovert, which I’m not. It’s also stuck in the past. The best wineries often have 20 employees or fewer—too small to have HR departments, let alone harassment policies. In Toronto, I can’t count the number of feely hugs and inappropriate comments I’ve received at work events. Stuff like “If only I wasn’t married.” Once, someone took headshots of three of us women wine writers and photoshopped them onto bikini-clad bodies for our male colleagues to ogle and make dumb comments about online.
So #MeToo hasn’t yet reached the wine industry?
It has: in 2020, the New York Times exposed rampant sexual harassment in the Court of Master Sommeliers. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. I think sexism is more subtle in workplaces that aren’t corporate. The setting is also a factor—we’re meeting at what people think of as social events, with alcohol, at night.
You said you’ve also dealt with online harassment.
As a wine writer, I would often be invited on tours in places like Niagara or even Italy to test new products. All the wine writers went, and we’d all get the same story. They were essentially press releases in the form of a bus tour. By 2012, I had enough experience in the industry to want to write my own stories, so I stopped going. Some people interpreted it as me thinking I was too good for the other writers—which was not the case. I received mean taunts on Twitter from writers and readers. It made me very anxious. You don’t know where it will end. I thought of suing, but the time and money it would have cost made it seem not worth it. The harassment eventually petered out, and the trolls moved on.
Have the dynamics of the wine scene changed at all between 2012 and now?
There are more support groups for women and racialized people in the industry, but more still needs to be done. For example, most entry-level wine-making gigs are one-on-one apprenticeships. That can lead to power differentials and manipulation.
How could the wine industry could get its act together?
We should start by addressing its marketing problem. “Wine mom” culture, the idea that moms need wine just to make it through the day, has gotten especially bad. I’ll admit, I was team captain of those jokes many years ago. I would call my 5 p.m. glass “Mommy’s little helper.” But moms with young kids increased their alcohol consumption by 323 per cent during the pandemic. So that narrative may be causing more harm than we realized.
Your book touches on your own over-drinking. How did you navigate it while working in the wine business?
I went through a lot of therapy and came up with tricks that still help me limit my drinking to this day. One is asking myself why I’m having a drink. If it’s because I had a stressful thought, I know I can make myself feel better in other ways, like going for a walk or watching a good TV show. Another trick is that, when I open a bottle of wine, I pour half of it into a second, empty bottle and stow it away. And of course, non-alcoholic wines are improving quickly. Leitz Eins-Zwei-Zero Alcohol Free Riesling and the Cox Creek Cellars Feel Free Dealcoholized Sparkling Rosé 2021 are great options.
Your book has received much acclaim from early readers, including some food-world celebs. Whose review were you most surprised to see?
I was so honoured to see that Frances Mayes, who wrote Under the Tuscan Sun, had reviewed my book. I admire her so much. She has this joie de vivre in her writing.
Tell me about your podcast.
It’s called Unreserved Wine Talk. I try to find the quirkiest people in the world of wine. The New York Times chose it as one of their favourite drinks podcasts. It was the only Canadian one on the list.
I can’t let you go without asking: What’s your favourite type of wine, and why?
Pinot Noir. I love it because it is a thin-skinned grape, which is susceptible to mould, mildew and disease—it’s so high maintenance. But, when it’s good, it’s sublime. It’s like on the edge of a nervous breakdown, which I love in a grape and in a person. I’d rather talk to a Pinot Noir at a party than a Cabernet.
And if you only had one day to spend in Toronto, where would you stop for a drink?
I love to support private wine stores, and there are lots of little bottle shops popping up. Grape Witches is a great one, and they specialize in natural wine. I also recommend Sips Toronto, in the Fashion District, and Grape Crush, which is in Trinity-Bellwoods.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.