From sour grapes to fine wine: Canadian wine writer tackles bitter truths in a new memoir

In 2012, she lost everything — her career, her marriage, and her health — only to emerge stronger than ever. Natalie MacLean talks about her “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” vintage in her new memoir Wine Witch on Fire, her third and latest book.

“Well, you might think from the title that this is the story of an angry woman who drinks a lot of wine and owns a lot of cats. But it’s actually not,” said the Ottawa-based wine writer. “It does have humour and, spoiler alert, a happy ending.”

More than a decade removed from the events detailed in the book, MacLean thought it was finally time to tell that story.

“Memoirist Glennon Doyle said to ‘write from a scar, not an open wound.’ But to do that, you need the lens of time, right? You can’t write about it while you’re in the middle of something. Otherwise, it’s just a misery dump. So, you have to have those reflections. That’s what’s useful to people reading your story.”

Another quotation finally sealed the deal for MacLean. The poet Sean Thomas Dougherty once said, “Why bother? Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.”


Our tale begins on December 15th, 2012, what MacLean calls her “Nightmare Before Christmas,” when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except her wireless mouse.

A Google alert informed her she was being talked about online. Her rivals had accused her of content theft and began a good, old-fashioned Internet pile-on. MacLean emerged from that with not only a finer understanding of copyright law, but with a resilience she didn’t know she had.

It all started with her innocently reposting third-party wine reviews from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario website on her own page.

“So, I thought, well, okay, that must be kosher because it’s in the public domain. Wrong. It’s on a government website. So, it must be fair use. Wrong. So, I should do it too. Wrong.”

The experience also opened her eyes to an undercurrent of misogyny in the industry.

“A lot has changed since 2012. Because that was pre-Harvey Weinstein, pre-Me Too, pre-all of that. So, we’re much more aware of these issues. But I think it’s just become more subtle. It’s not as overt as it was back then.”

MacLean had begun her wine writing career shortly after her son was born. Success and accolades followed in short order. She won the World’s Best Drinks Journalist Award at the World Food Media Awards in 2003, just four years into her writing career. The following year, she won the M.F.K. Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing from the Beard Foundation.

As she explains in the book, the financial crisis of 2008 gutted traditional wine criticism. Major newspapers and magazines cut their wine columns and other lifestyle content, while others simply went out of business. At the same time, blogs and websites like MacLean’s grew quickly.

Her first book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over, was meant as an irreverent poke at the stuffiness of the wine world. But after her separation, the jokes fell flat. Wines with cutesy names like “Mother’s Little Helper” and “White Lie” just didn’t land the way they used to.

MacLean began to wonder how she may be helping to perpetuate harmful, sexist tropes the industry uses to market to women. As she puts it, it can be hard to read the label from inside the bottle.

“The message on a lot of labels is that women need to have a reason to have a drink, whether it’s girls’ night out, spa day, a festive occasion. [There’s] nothing wrong with that. But no-one asks a man through marketing if he has a reason to drink. He has a glass of wine because he wants one. It’s just as simple as that.”

Today, she wears her Wine Witch label proudly.

“For me, it’s kind of the symbol of a woman, a wise woman, who has been through life’s dumpster fires and come out on the other side, stronger, wiser, fiercer. Singed but not shattered.”

MacLean calls her tale a “coming-of-middle-age” story. She receives messages almost daily from readers about how the book has resonated with them.

“I get notes and letters from different people, just saying how much they could see their story in mine. And that means the most to me because if a book can help the reader tell their own story and put into words what they are feeling, that’s all you can ask for because writing the book might be therapy, but publishing it is not. Publishing it is for the reader. So, that’s what I hope the book does: is help someone, perhaps, figure out their own story.”

Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much is available from Dundurn Press.

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