Natalie MacLean first had the idea to write about wine on a seemingly innocuous trip to the grocery store back in 1999.
Groggy and sleep-deprived — she was on maternity leave at the time — she picked up a local food magazine and started flipping through it. That’s when it hit her.
“They had all this beautiful food photography, recipes and so on, but no wine,” MacLean told CityLine.ca in a recent phone interview from her home in Ottawa. “I thought, well, I’ve taken a sommelier course. I know about the Internet, so I pitched them a story about wine on the Internet. They went for it, really liked it, and that became a regular column.”
That column gave MacLean the confidence she needed to cold-call editors of other magazines to pitch them on articles about wine — the response was overwhelmingly positive and when the end of her maternity leave rolled around she decided not to go back to her former job in the high-tech world (she worked for a California-based computer company).
“I really enjoyed my job but there was nothing like writing about booze for a living,” she laughed.
Ten years on, MacLean has received countless accolades for her wine writing, including four James Beard Journalism Awards, and her 2006 book Red, White and Drunk All Over was selected as the Best Wine Literature Book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. MacLean’s popularity stems in part from her insistence on eliminating the ‘snob factor’ so often associated with wine appreciation, and focusing instead on the sheer pleasure of enjoying a glass.
“I think there is something more to wine than almost any other drink,” she enthused. “There’s a reason we don’t have orange juice critics. It’s the buzz. There’s something that compels people when it comes to wine. It’s not a vodka shooter that you just knock back. There’s something in that glass that’s interesting even if you don’t want to spend a lot of time analyzing it.”
The idea of marrying wine and the Internet was pretty much unheard of back in 1999, but because MacLean worked in the technology field prior to writing about wine she knew being online would help her to reach a wider audience of wine enthusiasts. In addition to her website, www.nataliemaclean.com, where she posts columns and reviews, she sends out an e-newsletter to 103,000 subscribers and counting, and this past June launched food and wine pairing mobile applications for the BlackBerry and the iPhone.
“It started with the number of questions I received on food and wine pairing, by far the most of any other wine-related topic,” MacLean explained. “So I played around with it and thought, there’s got to be an easy way to answer people’s questions because they don’t want a whole article answer they just want to know, ‘What goes with my pepperoni pizza?’”
MacLean is also on Twitter (follow her @NatalieMacLean) and Facebook.
“I love it. I feel so connected to the wine world and what makes wine lovers passionate. They’re right on it, they call you on anything. I have this group of people, about 100 of them, and I call them ‘Wine Lovers for Better Grammar.’ They always tell when I misplace a comma or something in the newsletter,” she said.
“Wine is one of those things that I think really works well online. I welcome people to take wine at any level, the level of, ‘I like it. I’m going to drink it. I’m not analyzing it. Don’t bother me.’ But then if you want to dig into it, there’s so much information about wine. There’s that intermediate level of, ‘I just want to know what works here. What wine with this dish that I’m cooking?’ That’s the sensory, hedonism, very fun level of wine that most people enjoy.”
MacLean is currently working on her second book, and rest assured it will be as down-to-earth and approachable as her last.
“The more you try wine, and the more relaxed you are about it, the more you will get into it,” she offers. “It can lead to that deeper appreciation, but we don’t have to get all tense about it up front and think that we need to know our Cabernets from our Shirazes in order to pick a decent bottle. Only you are the expert on your palate. In the end you have to please yourself.”