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Wine critic Natalie MacLean says she now finds power in being more discerning with her drinking habits and calls out 'wine mom' culture and sexist marketing tactics designed to keep women drinking – and overdrinking.Handout

Wine critic Natalie MacLean woke up one day and realized she was part of the problem.

After years of making her overdrinking habits fodder for her writing, the bestselling author and award-winning journalist was forced to take a look in the mirror and come to terms with her participation in “wine mom” culture. This at a time when, according to a recent study from the Society for the Study of Addiction, binge drinking among women is on the rise. In her new memoir, Wine Witch on Fire, Maclean holds herself and the rest of the wine industry accountable for how it enables excessive drinking among middle-aged women.

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It is a more personal, vulnerable story than her previous works. She opens up about her sudden divorce after 20 years of marriage, as well as the online fallout from accusations she was appropriating wine reviews by other writers. And she discusses turning to drinking to manage these major life challenges before finding healthier ways to cope.

On the phone from her home in Ottawa, Maclean spoke about it all, plus how to drink less – even if your goal isn’t to go sober.

How did you wake up to the harm done by “wine mom” culture after being a part of it for so long?

When it came to joking about having too much to drink, I wasn’t a bystander, I was team captain. I called my glass of wine at 5 p.m. “mommy’s little helper.” But as I had to deal with my own overdrinking – which was in response to the depression from the divorce and then the anxiety from the online mobbing – I realized that this whole overdrinking culture is not helping, it’s hurting. I had to come to grips with whether, by talking and joking about it, am I bringing more pleasure or pain into the world? Am I being an enabler for other people, especially women?

In your book, you talk about becoming aware of the sexist marketing tactics used to sell wine to women. Can you tell me about some of these tactics?

In the wine world, as women, we’re either babes or battle-axes. We’re either reaching for brands like Stiletto or Little Black Dress, or we’re just trying to obliterate another day of exhaustion as mothers with brands like Mad Housewife or Mommy Juice.

The message is that women need a reason to have a drink, whether it’s a girl’s night out, a fancy occasion or rewarding themselves. No one asks a man why he wants to have a drink – he has one because he wants one. What’s happening on those labels is that they are profiting from our powerlessness. No one’s thanking mom, so mom will thank herself with another glass of wine, and then another one and then another one. But I think we have power as consumers – we vote with our dollars. There are so many wines made by women and other people who are worth supporting that have more grounded, authentic stories than some of the glibness that’s on these labels.

How did you go from struggling with overdrinking to developing healthy, moderate drinking habits?

I went through a lot of therapy and I was thinking about giving up drinking. But for me, that would’ve meant walking away from my career. So my therapist said, “Let’s talk about harm reduction first. Some people do have to quit completely, but let’s see if we can try some strategies.” So we talked about identifying the thought just before the thought that says, “I need a drink.” Is it about pleasure and relaxation, or is it about dealing with stress? And if it’s about dealing with stress, could I handle it another way, like go for a walk, have a bath or watch a show?

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Do you have tips for anyone trying to cut back on their drinking without going sober?

I think it’s important to resolve underlying issues first. When I dealt with my depression and anxiety, my urge to go for a drink to deal with those feelings dramatically subsided. I’m a real advocate of therapy, in whatever format works for you.

There are practical tips, too. When I open a bottle of wine, I now pour half of it into a half empty bottle, so I’m more mindful of how much I’m drinking and it also keeps that wine fresh for another day. Another tip would be to add low- and no-alcohol wines to your drinking repertoire. You can also alternate between a glass of wine and a glass of water. That’ll do two things: It’ll slow your consumption and it’ll keep you hydrated.

Why do you believe in drinking more intentionally without eliminating it altogether?

When I was thinking about giving up drinking altogether, I thought, “Could there be a middle ground?” Because I love wine so much. I remember the first glass of wine I ever had. I knew this was something incredibly different – a sensory experience I’d never had before, and one that I wanted to repeat deliberately, not just by accident.

Even apart from that sensory revelation, wine was this sort of endlessly engaging subject that intrigues me intellectually. I often say you could do a liberal arts degree with wine as the hub for all the spokes, because wine runs through almost all facets of human endeavours: science, literature, religion, commerce, geography. And so for me, it’s something that is an endless source of both learning and pleasure.

Are there any low-alcohol or alcohol-free wines you recommend?

Cox Creek Cellars in Guelph has one of the best non-alcoholic sparkling rosé wines I’ve ever tasted. I’m also a big fan of low-alcohol rieslings, whether they’re from any of our wine regions in Ontario, B.C., Nova Scotia, Quebec. A riesling is one of those grapes that often naturally has low alcohols thanks to the cool climate.

If you’re looking at reds, again turn to the red wines that thrive in cool climates, like pinot noir and gamay, which we do exceptionally well in Canada. Specifically, I love Quails’ Gate Estate Winery’s Dry Riesling, Reif Estate Winery’s Riesling and Westcott Vineyards Estate’s Pinot Noir.

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