Wine & Life

What goes with death row? How about a silky, fleshy pinot noir from Burgundy?

Natalie MacLean can do half of the food and drink thing (see Question No. 7) and has to keep fending off the FedEx guy, who often hints he would like to come in (No. 18).

Sommelier and wine writer Natalie MacLean got her start with half a bottle of syrupy sparkling wine behind the shed at a high school dance. Perhaps there’s hope yet for us all.

1. What comment most often appeared on your report cards?

“Enjoys writing stories.” I also couldn’t resist a good pun. In Grade 1, I wrote a story about the aquarium in our classroom and ended with the observation that something fishy was going on in there. I always loved playing with words; loved how language could be curled backward and forward to create new ways to seeing things.

2. What were the circumstances surrounding the first memorable glass of wine?

I remember the night I tasted my first good wine. My future husband Andrew and I were at a small Italian restaurant around the corner from our apartment. The first time we went there, the owner asked us if we’d like to try the brunello. We thought it was a regional dish, but it turned out to be a red wine from central Italy. We were just 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. As I raised the glass to my lips, the aroma of the wine rushed out to meet me and all the smells that I had ever known fell away. I moistened my lips with the wine and drank it slowly, letting it coat my tongue and slide from one side of my mouth to the other. I didn’t know how to describe it, but I knew how it made me feel.

3. What did you have on your bedroom walls when you were a kid?

I was a competitive highland dancer for 15 years so my bedroom wall had the medals I won at various highland games nailed to it. I also had a chart that I coloured in when I practised (I was a fairly intense child) and a poster of the movie Grease. I wanted to be Olivia Newton John: good girl gets bad boy — plus she was a great dancer.

4. You have $100 to spend at the LCBO. What will you buy?

I’d buy four to five wines in the $15 to $25 range. I don’t believe in paying more for pleasure than you have to. These days that’s easy as there are lip-smacking, delicious wines in that price range from Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Canada, as well as the southern regions of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

5. What useless skill(s) do you possess?

I’m double-jointed: wish it helped me to uncork wine more quickly, but it doesn’t.

6. What word most often used to describe wine do you find meaningless, and which descriptive word do you like best?

“Stylish.” It’s too abstract for most people to relate to wine. What does it mean? Well-made, delicious, balanced, complex, layered? It even sounds as though we’re talking about the wine’s own sense of style in choosing the right glassware or food companions for itself. I prefer more concrete language, like full-bodied, mouth-watering and even everyday fruit, like plums or berries.

7. What talent do you most envy in others?

I admire the ability to cook — anything. I can boil water for spaghetti.

8. If you were on death row, what would you choose for your final meal?

Could it be all liquid? I’d love to have a case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a silky, fleshy pinot noir from Burgundy. I think the wine would help make the situation more palatable (or blurry) than a steak would.

9. What movie scene involving wine is your favourite?

In From Russia with Love, an assassin posing as a fellow agent joins James Bond for dinner in the dining car of the Orient Express. Bond orders champagne for his sole, but the impostor asks for a chianti, “the red kind.” Later, when 007 recovers from being knocked unconscious by the bad guy, he says, “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something.” But the villain responds, “You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees.” Of course, Bond would have a much tougher time ferreting out the bad guys today, since the old rules about red wine and fish have long since been broken. That’s why I created a Drinks Matching tool with thousands of pairings on my website ( to help good guys and wine lovers. (I don’t tell villains about it.)

10. Almost everyone has a story of their worst night of drinking. What was yours?

My teen drinking began and ended at the same high school dance, behind the utility shed where all the illicit activities took place. I chugged half a bottle of syrupy sparkling wine. Not only did it taste wretched, but it also made me spend the next day in the vise grip of a searing, sugar-withdrawal headache. Didn’t touch booze again until I was 25.

11. What are the three best driving songs?

From the ages of five to 18, I went to highland dancing competitions almost every weekend, so the driving songs my mother and I sang evolved over time. We started with The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round, progressed to Hopelessly Devoted to You from Grease, and then on to Eye of the Tiger to get the competitive juices flowing.

12. What was the best wine you ever tasted?

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1956 in the cobwebbed winery cellar. The aroma enveloped me, sending my mind floating over a field of wild strawberries. There’s a beautiful mystery in some wines that evaporates with the cold touch of analysis.

13. What have you never done that you’d like to try?

I’d like to hike in the Andes Mountains. Luckily, I’ll be doing that next month when I visit Argentina to taste the wines there. It’s a pleasure doing business.

14. What was the best day of your life that didn’t include a marriage or birth?

A few years ago, I attended the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards, considered the Oscars of food and wine writing, in New York City. At the end of the evening, they announce the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, named in honour of my favourite food writer who wrote with a sensuous obsession. I couldn’t hear or see anything for several minutes after they said my name.

15. If you could be one fictional character for a day, who would

you choose and why?

The heroine in the Marguerite Duras novel Moderato Cantabile who sat in a café thinking of “that first sip of manzanilla in her mouth, and the peace in her body that would follow… the last gulp of brandy at daybreak, probably, coming up in her throat like a sob that you have to keep holding in.”

16. What was the first album/cassette/CD you ever owned, and under what circumstances did you get it?

My mother gave me Mother Goose, Rhymes and Songs when I was three. I absolutely loved Do You Know the Muffin Man?

17. What hitherto ignored country’s wines do you think people should start paying more attention to?

I’m just back from Sicily where I tasted remarkable wines made on the slopes of the volcano Mount Etna. Everyone thinks of Tuscany or Piedmont when they think of Italy, but these are the wines to watch in the next few years.

18. What part of your job do you like the least?

Taking out the bottle recycle bins on garbage morning. Ours are extremely heavy and embarrassingly full — all six of them. Wineries send me samples to taste at least two to three times a week — the FedEx guy keeps hinting at joining me for a tasting sometime. For most bottles, I just take one sip, spit it out, then dump the rest in the sink. So they pile up.

19. What three people, living or dead, would you most like to spend an evening with in a bar, and why?

Edoardo, Angela and Frank Serghesio, all Italian immigrants who started a small family winery in California in 1902. I wrote about their struggle in Red, White and Drunk All Over, but I would have loved to have spent an evening drinking with them, in a bar or at their kitchen table.

20. What would you like your headstone to read?

“Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,

in aid of others let me shine;

and when, alas, my brain

is gone,

what nobler substitute

than wine?

— Lord Byron.”

Natalie MacLean writes about wine and food on her website,



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