Natalie MacLean, WINE WITCH ON FIRE: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much

Natalie MacLean, WINE WITCH ON FIRE: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much

Guest host Julie Chavez speaks to accomplished Canadian wine expert and New York Times bestselling author Natalie MacLean about Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much, her powerful coming-of-middle-age memoir about how she resurrected her life and career in the cutthroat wine industry. Natalie reveals why she decided to share her story and then describes her experiences with overdrinking, depression, shyness, perfectionism, and therapy. (Go to for wine-pairing tips and discussion questions!!)


Julie Chavez: Hi, Natalie. Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so happy to talk to you today.

Natalie MacLean: I am so thrilled to be here with you, Julie. Thank you.

Julie: It’s my pleasure. I just finished your book last night. It is Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much. I really enjoyed this memoir. There was so much in it. Tell me a little bit about the story behind this book.

Natalie: From the title, Wine Witch on Fire, you might think it’s about an angry woman who drinks a lot of wine and owns a lot of cats, but it’s not. It does have humor and a happy ending — spoiler alert — despite all the dismal Ds in that subtitle. It is the story of one woman — that would be me — how I resurrected my life and career in the glamorous but sexist wine industry. My no-good, terrible, bad, vintage starts with my husband of twenty years asking for a divorce, which kind of caught me out of the blue. Then the year ends with a mob of rivals coming after my job. That’s the defamation part. I really had to dig deep that year to find the inner resources and strength to reconnect with the vineyards that once brought me joy — that’s why I started writing about wine — and the friends who had sustained me — I wasn’t talking to them about what was going on — and then my own belief in second chances. I call Wine Witch on Fire a true coming-of-middle-age story about transforming your life and finding love along the way.

Julie: I love that, coming-of-middle-age. I feel like as women, there are so many more cycles and revolutions in our lives than we have thought about before, right?

Natalie: Exactly. There’s lots of stories about the ingénue and then the lion in winter. Then there’s this big gap in the middle for middle-aged, especially women’s, stories. I think more of them need to be told.

Julie: I couldn’t agree more. I really enjoyed that about your book because it’s such a different coming-of-age tale when you have more experience behind you than when you’re young. There was a lot of insight there that I liked. You came out of this time. What made you decide to write this book?

Natalie: For the first five years, I thought, I can’t even look at the notes. This happened ten years ago, but the themes and the issues are almost more relevant today. For the first five years, I just couldn’t. I had to lock it away, but the story kept ricocheting around in my head. I thought, I have to let this out, even as a private exercise in making sense of what had happened. Then as the years went by, I was hearing more and more stories from women in the wine industry, but also women friends in other industries like sport and tech and finance. They were the same stories. The specifics, of course, were different, but the feelings and the themes and the issues were the same. I thought, could my story help? It’s such a different life. I was inspired by memoirist Glennon Doyle who said, write from a scar, not an open wound. Then the next natural question is, why write about it when all the healing is done? Poet Sean Dougherty, I think, has the answer. He said, because somewhere, someone out there right now has a wound in the exact shape of your words. That really gave me goosebumps. I thought, even if someone hasn’t gone through a divorce, they’ve probably felt loneliness or the longing for love. They may not have been attacked by an online mob, but they’ve probably felt some sort of fear for the future or career disappointment. When we read a memoir that can put words to feelings that we’ve had ourselves, maybe pushed them away, when they can be articulated like that, I think that can be healing.

Julie: I agree. I think you did a really good job of describing a lot of the pieces even prior to your divorce in terms of feeling lonely in a relationship. There’s an element there that you were figuring out as you went. I think that’s really true. Those are beautiful words from that poet because it’s true. There is a sense of, am I really doing anything by telling this story? It’s an act of faith to tell it and believe that it will be of service to someone.

Natalie: I know. Memoirists always say, I want to share this so people feel less alone or to be seen and to be heard. I had to dig down to, what does that mean? Does it really help someone? I think it can because you’re going through somebody else’s story, so there’s a safety element there that it’s not all of your hot buttons or your specifics. Just seeing how someone can experience some of the same feelings you’ve had, walk through the flames, and come out on the other side stronger, wiser, fiercer, that, to me, is what a memoir can do.

Julie: A real element of hope that, okay, this person survived these pieces and came out on the other side, and I can too. It is interesting how memoir is so personal until it’s not. As soon as you write it and send it out, these readers are now consuming it, but they are going to read it through their lens. They’ll take whatever resonates with them. That makes total sense. I love the way you put that. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about — how did this book position yourself in your mind? Your two previous books are humorous about drinking too much and all the things. I really liked that you used — I mentioned this. I like that you chose to say drinking too much instead of addiction, especially, or alcoholism or another term. I thought that was really good. How did this position for you? You were kind of funny about drinking too much in your other books. It was Red, White, and Drunk and Unquenchable, correct?

Natalie: Red, White, and Drunk All Over, but yes, that’s the gist.

Julie: And Drunk All Over. That’s right. I knew I was missing something. I got stuck. Those are your first two. Then now we’re this. How did that feel for you?

Natalie: I like that you picked up on the fact that I used drinking too much and not, as you say, addiction. Drunkenness would’ve been a tidier subtitle. Divorce, Defamation, and Drunkenness. I love memoirs about — I binge-read memoirs like Mary Karr’s and so on about having a substance abuse disorder. Especially post-pandemic, I think what’s more relatable now is that we’re all kind of on a spectrum if we haven’t given up drinking completely. Some of us need to do that. We go up and down. Progress is forward and backwards in terms of drinking and how much we’re drinking, how much we’d like to be drinking, the way we moderate or manage our drinking. I really dove into that in the book. I know that early readers are saying they really love being a fly on the wall during my therapy sessions as I wrestled with, hey, I drink for a living. I’m a wine writer. Do I just walk away from all of this? My father was an alcoholic. It runs in my family, so there’s that kind of fear and concern. My own wonderful therapist, Miranda, said, “You know, I think that might be punitive. Let’s see if we can focus on harm reduction first and some techniques.”

While this isn’t a self-help book, I share a lot of tips, again, that have really resonated with early readers, about moderating my own consumption as a professional. Things like, what was the thought just before the thought that said, “I need a drink”? Was it about stress or relaxation, enjoyment? If it was about stress, could I find a different way to handle that? Go for a walk. Take a bath. Watch a show. Just that pause sometimes can break that chain of, immediately, I want a drink. That’s why it’s drinking too much. You’re right, my first two books were all — I used my own overdrinking or drinking habits as fodder for humor. Now I’m using my overdrinking habits as, I hope, fuel for discussion on overdrinking, especially among women. During the pandemic, women’s overdrinking soared compared to the general population. I think there’s a lot of contributing factors to that. I think it’s time to have that discussion both in my industry — the wine industry has the highest rate of substance abuse of all professions; we don’t talk about it; there’s a lot of shame — but also more broadly.

Julie: You’re so right. It’s such a tricky subject too. You wrote in the book about how you would read these memoirs of people with substance abuse disorders. It’s easy to think, oh, I’m not having a vodka soda at eight AM, so I’m good to go. It’s tough to have an honest conversation about that. I really liked your therapist’s approach with the harm reduction and the pause between the thought and the action. That’s something I should probably do more in my entire life.

Natalie: We all could do it.

Julie: It’s amazing how therapy nuggets really apply in more than one situation, don’t they?

Natalie: They do. The whole, “I’m not hiding a vodka bottle in the diaper bag, so I must be fine,” but then I had to turn that mirror on myself and say, are women or other people — not just women — looking at me and saying, “Look at what she drinks. I must be fine”? Was I bringing more pleasure or pain in the world? Was I being an enabler by joking so much about my drinking habits? I really had to confront myself and have a real talk. That’s part of what’s in the book.

Julie: I applaud you for that, though. I think it’s a necessary conversation to have, especially because we are in the land of rosé all day or the age of rosé all day. You can’t go ten feet without advertisements, endorsements, all of these ideas. To actually step away from that and say, “Is this healthy for me? Is it something that’s enjoyment, or am I letting it get the best of me?” I think it’s so wise and hard to do for a lot of people.

Natalie: It is hard to do. As mothers, we don’t have time for a lot. We’re juggling a lot, of course. The message on some wine labels seems to be that we’re either babes or battle axes. We’re either reaching for brands like Little Black Dress or Stiletto or else we’re just trying to obliviate another day of exhaustion with wines like Mommy’s Juice and Mommy’s Time Out. There’s lots of laugh-out-loud memes. Wine mom culture is still going strong. Under that, I think there’s a bitter edge of resentment. No one’s thanking Mom, so Mom will thank herself with another drink. I wasn’t a bystander in all of this. I was team captain. I called my glass of wine, at five PM especially, Mommy’s Little Helper. It was helping me get through that arsenic hour, that time of day when your serotonin takes a natural dip. You want to take arsenic or administer it to those around you. Instead, you might go for a glass of wine.

Julie: That was an amazing term, by the way. I had never heard that. I was like, that is so true. Those hours in a mom’s day, you’re just like, I’m not going to make it.

Natalie: I know. You need some sort of transition aside from a tranquilizer to bridge from your busy workday to home life without snapping at somebody. I just think it comes from all of the overdemands that society places on us and that we place on ourselves. I had to start giving myself permission slips to stop at five or six PM. I used to say, I’ll get one more productive hour if I give myself a glass of wine. Keep going on that email. You have to step back at a certain point and say, enough’s enough.

Julie: Instead of using alcohol as a band-aid for overwork and overdoing it, it is a question of, how can I just be good to myself on the regular so I don’t feel this need to escape at five PM?

Natalie: Exactly, tranquilize or whatever.

Julie: Although, I will say, I feel like that hour, no matter what, is a touch-and-go one. Maybe you could exercise or go on a walk or do something nice.

Natalie: Just change your energy. I find just getting outside — I don’t think it’s going to work. Then it does. Just trust yourself for a minute. Get out. Do something. Just change that focus briefly. Even going back to those labels that target women, I think there’s an even deeper concern about what’s happening there. Why marketing generally does not target men the same way it targets women, the implied message with Little Black Dress and Girls’ Night Out is that women need a reason to have a glass of wine, whether it’s girlfriends getting together, fancy occasion, or just, again, another day of exhaustion done. Wine is not marketed in that way. No one asks a man why he wants to have a drink. He has one because he wants one. Some of these wine labels and wine marketing strike me the way Virginia Slims cigarettes used to market those as torches of freedom back in the sixties, or so I’m told. I’m not that old. Now it’s turned to wine. Those labels that profit from powerlessness or a feeling of thanklessness, I think we need to reexamine them, especially as women, and become better consumers of wine and drinkers of wine both in what we drink and how much we drink because we vote with our dollars.

Julie: Yes, I really like your take on that. That makes a lot of sense. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the orchid brain because I thought this was a really interesting insight that you had or that was provided in a conversation with your therapist, right? Am I remembering that correctly?

Natalie: That’s right, yes.

Julie: She said the orchid brain is delicate, hypersensitive, and acutely self-aware. By the way, I’m pretty sure I have one of those too. Since understanding that about yourself, do you embrace it more? Has that made it easier to identify that? I think the hypersensitivity and acute self-awareness can be just so tricky. It’s a lot to carry.

Natalie: It is. I told her I wanted a cactus brain. How could I get one of those?

Julie: May I order that? Is there a catalog? In SkyMall, maybe we can get it.

Natalie: If only. Oh, my goodness. This hyperawareness I think, again, is a large part of many women’s existence, especially writers, but anyone who has a sensitivity to their environment. It’s just too much coming in. Part of that is I’ve been officially — not diagnosed; I don’t know what the word is — categorized as a super taster. That means I have more taste buds, on average. It makes me acutely aware to everything, not just wine, which can be a good thing in tasting. The person who diagnosed this said, “I’ll bet you take out the tags from all of your clothing. I’ll bet you drink tea, not coffee. I bet you have thermostat wars with your family.” It was like, check, check, check. What makes us super tasters, super noticers, or orchid brains is great in a lot of ways. It’s great for writing. You pick up on all the sensory details. Your writing could be alive and rich and really help the reader envision what’s going on in your life. In terms of everyday life, it can make for lousy socializing when you’re looking at everybody’s muscle twitch and everything that they’re doing. It can be linked to wanting to self-medicate to say, I need to slow down this sensory input. Give me a glass of wine. Being aware of that, to your question, really helped to just work with that and to know when I have to shut myself down in other ways to go recharge the batteries, but not necessarily with wine.

Julie: Are you an extrovert or an introvert?

Natalie: Extreme introvert, very shy, but I learned to perform early on. I was a Highland dancer in competitive Scottish Highland Games with the kilts and the bagpipes and everything. My mom was a single mom, a schoolteacher. We moved around a lot, so I stopped answering the door when the kids came to knock to play. I learned how to perform and compete and be all in performance-wise. It was either a big crowd or one-on-one with Mom, generally. Definitely, an introvert with some social skills to cope.

Julie: Social-skilled introvert. That makes a lot of sense, though. There is something to be said for maybe the safety of a larger group as opposed to that middle ground where you’re not sure if you can be fully engaged or fully disengaged. It sounds like you chose or you preferred environments where you knew the rules and the expectations.

Natalie: Exactly, Julie. That’s really a good observation. With large crowds, they’re anonymous. You can’t see them. You’re not tuning in one-on-one with anyone. It’s that group of three or four to six. Okay, let me try to take a deep breath here.

Julie: I’m in my nightmare. Come on in. The water’s warm.

Natalie: It can be friends too, nicest people on the planet. You have to develop techniques for dealing with that if you’re an introvert.

Julie: That’s such a gift of therapy and that self-examination and asking those questions. What works for me? What feels good? What doesn’t feel good? As opposed to, like you said, let me just cope with it, and then I don’t ever really get to the other side of this.

Natalie: The self-awareness and therapy go a long way toward many things. Progress is never linear, so there’s lots of forwards and backwards. I think it’s the struggle that counts.

Julie: I really liked the way that you were so honest about that as well in terms of finding a balance with your drinking. I’m constantly laboring under the idea that progress can be linear, and so setbacks can be hard. It’s good to read about that and just be reminded this is how life goes. One step forward, two steps back.

Natalie: It is. It’s all wrapped up with a whole bunch of other things. This is really good therapy. Thanks, Julie, for having me into your private session here. The other things I deal with, which I’m sure a lot of people will feel resonate with, perfectionism and competitiveness. They are like a boa constrictor and a cobra. One will squeeze the joy of life out of you. The other will bite you with envy. All of these things are wrapped together. What a good therapist can do is untangle them and try to get down to the underlying issues. For me, fortunately, my overdrinking was really tied to the depression from the divorce and the anxiety from the online mobbing. Once I dealt with that, that instant need to have another drink really alleviated. Didn’t go away completely. I still have to manage it, but it really, really helped.

Julie: That’s such a gift of this book that I really appreciated because it is easy to move through our lives on autopilot until something becomes such an issue that it’s so far gone that now we have other fallout to deal with from it as opposed to, let me ask myself these questions. Why am I doing this? Perfectionism and competitiveness, check and check also on Julie’s personality profile as well. I think you and I have a few things in common.

Natalie: Oh, yes. Getting that sense.

Julie: I’m feeling it. You write that you had lost touch with joy because of the business of production. Lost touch with joy — I’m sorry — in the writing. Was writing this book a different experience for you? What was it that made it so? The first question of that is, did you feel that as a result of your two books or more with your reviews? What was the production piece that sort of crushed you? Then how is this one different?

Natalie: After my first two books were published, they did really well, so I was getting more and more people visiting my website. Then I got tapped into SEO, search engine optimization, because I thought, let’s get more people visiting the site. More people find out about the books, my online courses for food and wine pairing, mobile apps, etc. I felt like I was slowly becoming Google’s content rat. I was trying to do articles that were optimized to get clicks and eyeballs, like the rat presses the pellet gun or whatever in the cage. It wasn’t nourishing me. I started off writing because it gave me this flow state that lots of folks talk about. When you’re writing and you’re really into it, you’re starting to make creative connections between things that you’ve never seen before. It’s really happening. It’s coming out and onto the page or the screen. That’s very healing. This SEO stuff was the opposite. It was like chasing after another little pellet. It was not my higher self.

Julie: My higher self is not Google’s rat. That’s amazing. You’re so right. Yes, continue. Oh, my gosh.

Natalie: Getting back to writing a book again — it was a ten-year gap between books one, two, then this is book three. I was Google’s little pet for a while. Getting back into this long-flow writing really felt healing for this orchid brain. It was concentration. It wasn’t, click, click, click, like, like, like, whatever. It was all about making these longer connections and creativity. I would stop after a writing session and feel that my brain was healing slowly again. It was the most wonderful thing. Actually, that’s where I started. When I started writing about wine when I got into it at first, I didn’t even want to do short-form wine reviews. I just wanted to do these long-form narratives because I always admired the new journalists like Joan Didion and Thomas Wolfe and so on who dove into their subject headfirst, experienced whatever it was, and then wrote about it. That’s what I did for my first two books. Red, White, and Drunk All Over, I became sommelier for a day. Then I was able to write about it with more depth. This is the same thing, except this is my life. I definitely dove headfirst into it. That writing experience, it opened up some neural pathways that had gone dark ten years ago.

Julie: That’s a beautiful thing to hear. That makes so much sense. There are so many parallels with the wine world too. There’s the experience of wine and enjoying it and savoring it. Then there’s this marketing beast and the commodification that then becomes — they shouldn’t go together, but they do. Then it just sucks all the joy right out of it.

Natalie: It does. The first glass is kind of like that sigh at the end of a long day, especially since it’s relaxation, not stress alleviation. It’s sensory. You’re smelling it. You’re enjoying it. You’re feeling it going down into your body. Glass two is, okay, now I’m relaxed. As you keep progressing, if you do, it becomes less about enjoyment. It’s just about oblivion. You disconnect from yourself. Through wine and alcohol, I was separating my mind from my body. As I dancer, I grew up always connected with my body. That’s how I expressed myself. The wine was just disconnecting the two. I had to come back and bring it full circle and feel connected again.

Julie: You’re reminding me — I wrote a memoir that’s about a period where I was deeply depressed. When I was at the peak of my anxiety, even having a glass of wine, it wasn’t enjoyable because I was not in my body. It’s such an interesting thing that you’re talking about, too, where that connection to our bodies is so important and so fundamental. Once we lose that, it’s a slippery slope.

Natalie: We’re not a whole person anymore. We’re just living in our heads. That’s very easy for people who love writing and reading. It’s glorious sometimes to live in your head, but not all the time. You got to come back down from the attic of your mind back down into the central part of yourself and feel that fusion that makes a whole person.

Julie: Yes, you’re exactly right. I want to hear about the book club guide that you’ve created for this memoir because just even the conversation we’re having, I think this is going to bring so much opportunity for people to talk. This would be a great book club book.

Natalie: Thank you for saying that.

Julie: Tell me about the guide.

Natalie: It is free and downloadable from It’s quite substantial because it’s actually a big part of the book that gotten taken out because someone wasn’t sticking to word count guidelines.

Julie: Editors, man. They’re so pesky. Geez.

Natalie: It was kind of a debate. At the end of each chapter of the memoir, I was recommending wines to pair with the themes and so on. All of that came out. It’s now in that free guide. Not only do you get lots of wines to pair not just with my book, but lots of other books, but you get tips on how to organize an informal tasting with friends even if you don’t have a book club. I hear a lot of book clubs are about the wine sometimes more than the book. There are also lots of discussion questions. Even if you haven’t yet read the book, I think the discussion questions will spark a lot of debate among your friends or your book club members. It’s things like, what do you think about the way wine is marketed to women? How do we deal with trauma? How do you feel about your own wine consumption? You don’t have to get the gold star and answer every question, but they’re there. They’re meaty questions that I was discussing with my own girlfriends at the time while writing this book.

It was unbelievable how the stories just poured out. Once I opened myself to what was going on in my life and these really hard questions that I was tackling, the stories just came flooding back. They’re flooding back from readers too. Again, it gives me goosebumps. I got an email the other day from a woman who said, “My husband hit the bottle pretty hard during the pandemic because we lost our adult son. He took his own life. I credit your book for him getting back on track with moderating his consumption.” Again, I don’t claim this to be a self-help book, but that just moves me. That alone is worth everything. There’s lots of questions that will spark that debate even if you’re not in a trauma yourself. I think we’ve all had some experiences along the road that will resonate. I think people will really enjoy the book club guide.

Julie: It’s perfectly timed. Where is the best place to purchase this book? Where can we find it?

Natalie: It is in bookstores as of June 6th in the US and elsewhere. It came out a little earlier in Canada, May 9th. You can go to There’s links to all the retailers. You can order it online if you can’t find it in your bookstore. I have juicy bonuses like online wine tastings and so on for those who purchase the book. I’m happy to send signed bookplates to anyone who does that if you want to make it a gift.

Julie: I love it. Natalie, thank you for the time, for your insight, for the conversation. This was fantastic. I really, really enjoyed this.

Natalie: You know, Julie, I think we’re going to have to have a glass of wine together someday.

Julie: I accept. It’s on the calendar. Thank you.

Natalie: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.

Julie: Me too.

Natalie: It was wonderful.

WINE WITCH ON FIRE: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much by Natalie MacLean

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