A Grape's Progress

'Cheers" read the subject line in my e-mail inbox. The sender was Natalie MacLean. Natalie MacLean, Natalie MacLean...ah. That's right. From Eric Asimov's column in the December 6 New York Times, his holiday wine book roundup: "Ms. MacLean is the disarming Everywoman. She loves wine, loves drinking and loves getting a little buzzed. But as she follows wine's journey from vineyard to cellar to retail shop, restaurant, and dining room, she can't help feeling insecure." He was writing about MacLean as she presents herself in her book, Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.

Asimov opposed that insecurity -- MacLean herself characterizes it as "the general uncertainty that runs through the book" -- to the more expert tone adopted by Jay McInerney in the season's other popular wine book, A Hedonist in the Cellar. Both authors position themselves as passionate amateurs, hanging around with the real masters so that we, the readers, don't have to. But, admits McInerney, "I suppose that now, ten years later, it would be disingenuous to pretend I haven't learned what malolactic fermentation is, or that I can't usually distinguish a Burgundy from a Bordeaux."

MacLean takes it further than that; she thinks he's being modest. "Jay knows a heck of a lot more than I do; he's been studying and reading a whole lot longer." She ought to know -- she interviewed him for her book's last chapter, which uses McInerney's story to take up the matter of wine collecting. This is MacLean's method throughout: find a story upon which to hang the investigation. A visit to Burgundy's Domaine Romanee-Conti gives her space to talk about soil and vines; the tale of a dinner party lets her ruminate on wine and food pairing, etc. She comes across as more of a student than McInerney, but interestingly enough, she does more teaching along the way. "When I go to a region, that's when I learn about it, and when I went to these places in the book, they were my first trips there. I hope that keeps the perspective fresh, keeps the feeling that you're learning along with me.

"I'm trying to use the approach my mother did when I was little," she explains, "bury the peas in the mashed potatoes, so that you still get the nutrition, but it tastes good. You need to know how wine is made before you buy it, how to buy it before you match it with food, how to match it with food before you tackle a restaurant list...." (Collecting, the McInerney chapter, comes last of all.) "The chapters are structured around the most commonly asked wine questions." Again, she ought to know -- through her website (nataliemaclean.com), she gets about 200 e-mails a day, many of them asking questions about wine. "The Internet has been bigger than I ever thought it could be," she says. "In terms of the connection with wine lovers, ideas for stories, editors finding me, and now marketing the book."

In at least two instances, those connections provided her with not only direction but material as well. MacLean wanted to find a fantastic wine shop -- a place full of characters, quirky, iconic, somehow cutting edge. A place with a story compelling enough to cover a lesson on how to buy wine. "I really tried to find the most obsessed, colorful people I could, because I thought, 'They're going to ask the questions; they're going to make the provocative statements.' I want to challenge as many notions as I can, and they're going to help me do it." And her readers were going to help her find them.

"I have just over 60,000 people who subscribe to my wine newsletter," she says. Some subscribers provide an address along with the requisite e-mail, so "I looked at my database and selected everyone who lived in San Francisco" and asked them for suggestions. Again and again, the responses urged her to visit Chuck Hayward at the Jug Shop, and so she did. Ditto her other wine-shop stop, Discovery Wines in New York, where she made the mistake of wearing Manolo Blahniks while she worked the floor. By late afternoon, she writes, "I've developed a code-blue blister on my left heel and my hamstrings are on fire."

A framework of stories is one way MacLean keeps the book from becoming a primer. That sort of physical description is another. "I love the appeal of wine because it hits me on three levels," she says. "The intellectual -- the geography, the history. You could do a liberal arts degree with wine as the organizing principle. The sensory -- what's going on in the glass. The aromas, how it matches with food. And then the bodily -- the buzz. I trained as a dancer for a lot of years, and dancing formed my life, the way I respond to the world. When I have a sensory experience, it doesn't just stay in my head. I descend into the body. My descriptions will often include how I'm feeling bodily. Some people like that; other people call it purple prose. But it's my voice, and it's my sensibility."

Early on, she writes that a particular red Burgundy "wants to play coy with me before filling my pleasure center. The wine's suppleness feels as though unseen hands pull a velvet dress over my head and down over my breasts and hips, until the hem brushes my thighs. By now, my tasting notes have become contented purring noises." She recalls that "Someone said, 'Did you know your thighs are in this book twice?' I said, 'Well, they're big thighs, so that's where the wine hits first.'" And while she points to this passage as a possible example of her feminine voice as a wine writer -- a voice she believes resonates with other women -- she distinguishes it from "the cutesy style. 'Chardonnay is your little black dress' and that kind of stuff. I can't relate to that, because it doesn't tell me anything." The sensual effect is part of the critical assessment.

And MacLean is a critic. She evaluates wines for her newsletter readers, and thanks to popular demand, she even scores them. To her, it goes with the territory: she's given her working life to wine, and her busy readers want to share in the practical fruits of her labors. But her criticism is a long way from the magisterial assessments of some of her peers. "First and foremost, I'm inconsistent. You never know where I'm going to go, because I'm always writing these tasting notes late at night after drinking! As you can tell, I don't take wine criticism seriously.

"I will admit that I'm influenced by my personal preferences. I find Pinot Grigio completely boring. I have written in tasting notes, 'This is a good Pinot Grigio -- if you like Pinot Grigio.' I didn't like it, but it's a good one of its type. I let my enthusiasm flow for wines I personally like. That would be Pinot Noir from just about any region...and then a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a German Riesling. I find a lot of Australian Shiraz and California Cabernet to be just too heavy. I find them overwhelming in terms of the oak, the alcohol, the flavor, the color, the extraction. They're just going to clobber your food. So I'm biased according to my personal palate. I'm not pretending to be a universal critic. I've told people, 'You've got to see if the kinds of wines I like line up with what you like. Otherwise, you're going to find my reviews very...I just don't cover a wide territory.'"

Not to say she isn't interested. "The book has been satisfying, even though it was a huge, huge commitment. That's why I want to do it again."

"Oh, there was some stuff you didn't get to?" I ask.

"Did you notice that Italy was missing?" she asks, laughing. "Bordeaux? I want to do something with a different concept, and with completely different regions. I'm curious. I want to get out and see places and bring my readers with me."

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