From tech to wine, Natalie MacLean appreciates the social grapevine

Wine writer Natalie MacLean
Writer and entrepreneur Natalie MacLean released her memoir, "Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much" in May. (supplied)

Whether you work in a fast-paced industry focused on innovation, or in a field built on centuries of tradition, the importance of networking and making industry connections can’t be overlooked. 

That’s what Ottawa-based writer and entrepreneur Natalie MacLean learned when she left the tech industry to become a full-time freelance wine writer more than 20 years ago. 

MacLean started out in a high-tech career, working for a supercomputer company as an “internet evangelist,” where she promoted the power of the internet and intranet to transform business. 

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It was a career she loved, she said, but in 2000, she took a year-long maternity leave with her first child and her aspirations changed. 

“Prior to that maternity leave, I had taken a sommelier certificate program at Algonquin College at night just for fun because I was fascinated with the world of wine,” she said. “I never had any intention to write about it. But while on leave, I was flipping through a local food magazine and noticed there was nothing about wine in there.”

So she reached out to the editor and made her first pitch. Then she made another pitch. Soon she had a regular wine column and started cold-calling other editors. 

“By the time my maternity leave was over, I had developed enough columns to keep going and not go back to my high-tech job. That was perfect for me. I was an introvert and wanted to be home with my job, and I still had a career.”

MacLean compares the tech industry to a “brave new world,” a fast-paced, highly innovative arena, while wine is much like Downton Abbey: structured, traditional and hierarchical. Despite the obvious differences, MacLean said she was struck by the similarities.

For example, her early success as a freelancer lulled her into a false sense of security, she said, until she realized that networking was just as important for a wine writer as it was in corporate tech. 

She described herself as “naive” at the time.

“I was transitioning from an office environment to my own home office,” she said. “I treated it like school. I thought if I kept my head down and worked hard, I’d get good grades. But even if you have a business out of your own home, you still need to be out there. We always have to maintain relationships, with editors, with people we interview. I had a misconception of what the wine industry would be and what I would need to do to thrive in it.”

But wine isn’t the easiest industry to break into, especially for women. 

In May, MacLean released her third book, Wine Witch On Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much, a memoir about her transition out of the tech industry and into the world of wine. In it, she explores what it’s like to be a woman in male-dominated industries, wine-mom culture, and the sexist ways wine is marketed to women. 

“When it comes to sexism and misogyny, it was a different blend of the same bitter aftertaste,” she said. 

Both tech and wine are industries helmed by men, especially at the very highest levels, she noted. In the C-suite, MacLean said you find very few women in either, despite the diversity of the middle management ranks. According to MacLean, fewer than 10 per cent of wineries are owned by women. 

So as she built out her connections, she said she started by reaching out to other women. 

“We had a lot in common,” she said. “There is a sense of camaraderie with other women in the industry. And, over time, you start to find your other allies.”

Over her 20-year career, she said she’s made alliances across the industry all over the world. No longer just a freelancer, she now runs her own company with a team of 15 people. Her website receives 3.2 million visitors a year and she runs a blog featuring her own reviews and work from her network of contributing writers. She also hosts a podcast, Unreserved Wine Talk. 

“I’m more connected (now),” she said. You would think in an industry that literally has a strong social grapevine, I would have recognized that, but I did not. Today I do and I keep more actively involved in that way.”

Her transition into the wine industry was also a return to her entrepreneurial roots. At 15, she started her own dance school in Ottawa, which grew from 32 students to 300 over eight years. That experience allowed her to pay for her undergraduate degree and MBA.

“My mom always taught me to be scrappy and to have a can-do attitude,” said MacLean. “I took the skills I had and created a business out of nothing, which is kind of what I did with wine. I didn’t have any media contacts, nothing in the industry. I had to build a career out of nothing and that comes from the mindset of, ‘I’ll give it my best shot.’”

While she’s retained that attitude of perseverance and overcoming that she had as a teen, she said you can’t beat experience when it comes to growing as an entrepreneur. 

“What’s different is the maturity, the perspective, knowing that not everything can happen all at once, realizing that a career is a long game,” she said. “Building alliances, although time-consuming, is really in the long term effective and necessary and enriching.”

In her current role at the head of her own company, she’s also finding her way back to another love she had back then: teaching. 

“I realized the deep satisfaction I get now is from mentoring younger people in the industry. It’s easy to achieve on your own, but I think it’s more satisfying when it’s somebody else who’s achieved something where you’ve helped them do it.”

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