Divorce to defamation: How sommelier Natalie MacLean bounced back

Natalie poses for a photo in Carlingwood Shopping Centre. She’s holding a glass of red wine and her book.
Westboro author Natalie MacLean has written a new book titled Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much. Photo by Ellen Bond.

By Charlie Senack

Christmas is supposed to be a festive season full of love, laughter, and family. A time to forget the worries of the year, even if just for a few days, and to count our blessings. 

But the holiday season in 2012 was not a time of joy for Westboro writer and sommelier Natalie MacLean. She’s tabled it all in a new memoir titled Wine Witch On Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much.

“It was December 15 and my family had just gone to bed after a festive dinner. I decided to check my email one more time before going down for the night,” recounted MacLean. “I got a google alert with the headline ‘Natalie MacLean: World’s Best Wine Writer or Content Thief?’

It was the beginning of a defamation campaign, MacLean said. Hundreds of comments were left on the article’s post. Many of them were sexist and nasty, not uncommon behavior in the wine industry. 

“It literally went viral. It was spread all around from site to site, not just wine sites. In the end, it did die out but not before a lot of damage was done to my reputation,” she said. “Many issues surfaced in the comments in terms of how women are treated in this industry. It has a fast social grapevine. Unlike the restaurant industry which is more formally organized, the wine industry is small and lends itself to this type of abuse.”

It was the cherry on top after an already turbulent year. In January her husband of 20 years had unexpectedly asked for a divorce. Depression kicked in and months of drinking too much followed. 

After realizing her relationship with wine was becoming unhealthy, MacLean spoke with her therapist about what to do. She considered stopping drinking altogether — alcoholism ran in her family — but that would mean the end of her career. Instead, she was encouraged to try harm reduction. 

“Wine has brought so much opportunity to my life. I did not want to give it up,” she said. “I love wine for its sensory pleasure. I’ve not got a good grip on what I want my relationship with wine to be.” 

Her experiences of overcoming the personal obstacles of drinking too much while dealing with an array of life issues are all detailed in Wine Witch on Fire. MacLean said she felt it was important to offer useful tips and guidance to others who might be struggling.

“I’m at the point in my career now where I can share this story. I’ve had a lot of success. There are a lot of women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals, that either don’t have the confidence to speak up or have so much more to lose in their careers than I do right now,” she said.

A copy of Wine Witch on Fire sits in a Christmas tree.
Wine Witch on Fire is a personal memoir for author Natalie MacLean. Photo by Ellen Bond.

The book has a happy ending. Six months after her husband left, MacLean, who was named the World’s Best Drink Journalist in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards, met her now partner of 10 years through Misty River Introductions, Ontario’s largest matchmaking service. 

“The book is my journey of dealing with the issues and coming out on the other side of it. I had no intention of writing about it… but the story kept swishing in my head for five years,” MacLean said. “I put it down on paper to make sense of what happened to me, but then over the years I heard more and more stories of women in the wine industry but also other sectors who had very similar stories.”

Wine Witch on Fire is MacLean’s third book. She’s also wrote Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass, and Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines.

Natalie’s wine picks for the holidays

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava

Penedes D.O., Spain

Pairing: creamed corn 

Kin Vineyards Carp Ridge Chardonnay 2020

Ottawa, Ontario V.Q.A. 

Pairing: buttery mashed potatoes 

Reif Estate Winery Riesling 2021

Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario V.Q.A.

Pairing: oven-roasted turkey 

Closson Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020

Prince Edward County, Ontario V.Q.A.

Pairing: juicy cranberry sauce 

Fonseca Porto Late Bottled Vintage Port 2015

Douro D.O.P., Portugal

Pairing: chocolate Santas

For more wine picks and info about Natalie MacLean’s book, visit www.nataliemaclean.com.

Leave a comment