Sommelier and wine scribe Natalie MacLean has written for dozens of magazines and newspapers, penned Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass, and authors the monthly wine newsletter Nat Decants. I asked MacLean, who hails from Canada, about how the palates of professionals and amateurs match up, how cultural background affects wine critics, the pros and cons of the Internet for wine consumers, and more.
In Red, White, and Drunk All Over, you state that you taste 3,000 wines per year, while a critic such as Robert Parker tastes as many as 10,000. Given this, how relevant are the palates of professional tasters to those of casual wine drinkers, especially as the former tend to spit wine and try it without food?
You’ve hit on the rub of the problem! To find good, reasonably priced wines, you need to taste many. I recommend just one or two wines for every 20 that I sample. But tasting large groups of wines does tend to numb the palate and take wine out of its intended context of a meal. However, I think that wine writers still do readers a service by trying lots of wines and weeding out the bad ones. The trick really is to find a critic whose palate is similar to your own so that you can trust his or her choices.
Your book covers a feud between American critic Robert Parker and British critic Jancis Robinson, and how each tended to be backed by his or her compatriots. This is intriguing since I sense the cultural background of wine writers will affect the Chinese market. To what extent do you think wine writers are influenced by their own cultures?
Wine writers are extremely influenced by their own cultures. Those of us who grow up in North America aren’t often exposed to wine until we’re adults. And even then, it’s New World wines that are usually our first wines. Contrast that to someone growing up in the U.K. or Europe where it is much more likely to be part of the family dinner.
You wrote about working with Randall Graham and his team at Bonny Doon Vineyards in California. How difficult was it to grasp and translate the technical side of making wine into terms accessible for readers?
The technical side is always a challenge, especially when you don’t have a chemistry degree. Most readers want to learn about the process but you must be careful that the technical details don’t derail the narrative. Good wine writing is good storytelling: you need to make readers curious, amused, and enlightened.
Due to the Internet, wine consumers have more access than ever to information. Your free e-newsletter, with more than 87,000 subscribers, demonstrates this power. For consumers, what are the pros and cons of getting wine information from the Internet?
The Internet means that wine information is easy to access anytime: you no longer have to be part of the industry or even take a course to be knowledgeable. The downside is that there is a lot of inaccurate and unclear information posted online. You need to sort through the various sites, blogs, and e-newsletters to find those you trust.
If you could change one thing about the wine industry in order to get more people to try wine, what would it be?
I’d make in-store sampling more prevalent. Wine is such a mysterious product to buy for many people. Most of us decide based on whether we like the cute squirrel or the ancient castle on the label. You need to taste wine to know if you like it. More sampling programs would take so much of the guess work and intimidation from the buying experience.
You are stuck on a desert island and allowed to have three bottles of wine – what would they be (we’ll say that the water in the lagoon is cool enough to chill Champagne)?
Domaine Romanee-Conti: all three bottles because it would be sad to have just one or even two if I knew I could have three.