In her new memoir, Wine Witch On Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much, wine writer Natalie MacLean writes about resurrecting her life and career.
In the excerpt below, MacLean talks about cutting back on her drinking—while still appreciating her favourite pinot noirs.
I realized I wanted my evenings back. I had to tell myself that the night wouldn’t get any better or more fun with more wine. I’d just end up saying things I’d regret, fall asleep early in front of the TV, wake up in the morning gutted.
I also wanted to command my own boundaries rather than worry about developing a soggy reputation with friends. She sure likes to have a good time, wink, wink.
Most of all, I wanted good health, the scaffolding of happiness. I wanted to get out from under the wine-soaked cloud of depression and not die of breast cancer.
Now that I had my why, I just needed the how. The challenge was making it through the arsenic hour around 5:00 p.m. when there’s a natural dip in serotonin, the hormone that stabilizes our mood and sense of well-being.
I had no commute to separate work and home.
My office was just another room in my home. The key was giving myself a permission slip to quit work for the day at 6:00 p.m. I also had to convince myself that chemical relaxation wasn’t Natalie relaxation. I had to change my thoughts from ‘I need a drink to relax’ to ‘I’m taking care of myself in a different way this evening and I’m treating future Nat, who’ll thank me tomorrow.’ I had to rewind to the thought that was just before the thought that said I need a glass of wine. Usually that instigating thought was prompted by worry, anger, or despair that I wanted to water down with wine.
When the urge for a glass of wine seized me, I asked myself, How am I feeling now in this moment? I put my hand on my heart to reconnect with myself physically, to stop running back and forth across the icy attic of my mind and come back down into my body and feel my own warm flesh.
I decided not to have wine the next evening. That night I made a green tea and sat down to watch Suits. Yes, I still tasted wine daily, but that was spitting, not drinking. It felt luxurious to enjoy three to four hours of full energy after dinner. I read books again without falling asleep. I had complained for years I didn’t have time to read.
Practising this reset at restaurants was harder because of their strong association with wine. I don’t open up as much as I’d like until I’ve had a glass or two. I also feel trapped in restaurants since they’re not my home environment, where I can roam freely. That’s why I’m too feral to work in a corporate office.
First, I had to stop “pre-drinking”: having a glass of wine at home to sand down the edges before going out. Daniel had caught on to what I was doing and asked me to wait until we got to the restaurant.
“Stop judging me. I just want to relax.”
“I want to share the same reality with you.” He put his hands on my waist. “Let me keep pace with you so we share the experience … When you have a glass before we go, we’re not on the same plane.”
God, I love that man when I think about this now, though at the time I called him Buzz Killington.
With his support, I stopped the pre-drinking habit. At restaurants, I had to be vigilant with those small sips, and alternate them with sips of water. I made sure servers weren’t topping up my glass too quickly, allowing them to refill only when I had finished a glass completely and stopping at a couple of glasses. If we didn’t finish a bottle, I asked for it to be recorked to take it home—a treat for another night.
I also realized that once I got out of my head and into my heart, my drinking pace slowed. I took my time, ordering wines by the glass, which also made it easier to track how much I was drinking. I paired a briny Austrian grüner veltliner that tasted like ocean spray with chef Daniel’s “Sea Scallops in Black Tie”—thinly sliced scallops interspersed with slivers of black truffles drizzled in a beurre blanc sauce.
The next challenge was socializing at friends’ homes. Could I be real without too much wine, fully present and relaxed? It helped not being around the high-powered tech crowd. At a birthday party for one of Daniel’s relatives, I basked in their warmth. They were more interested in me than in what I did. They asked about my family, how I spent my spare time. (Spare time?) They worked to live. I recalled the plastic lawn chairs of my childhood and my own extended family of uncles and aunts—carpenters, mechanics, people who worked with their hands—much like farmers and winemakers.
At more gussied-up dinner parties, Daniel was my wine wingman, tapping me twice under the table if I started getting too loose with my comments. Though once I turned to him slowly and said in a voice everyone could hear, “Please stop tapping my thigh to warn me I’ve lost my socially acceptable inhibitions.”
Daniel always had my back, and my heart.
Natalie MacLean was named the World’s Best Drinks Writer at the World Food Media Awards. She’s also the host of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. Get the free companion guide to her memoir here.