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Unquenchable by Natalie MacLean

Natalie MacLean is a wine writer living in Ottawa, the political capital of Canada. MacLean is her maiden name. Her mother’s maiden surname was MacDonald. Natalie grew up in Nova Scotia, and participated very successfully in Scottish Dance competitions internationally. Having had a grandmother myself who actually immigrated from Scotland, I find the notion of reconciling a Scots heritage with the sybaritic aspects of wine writing rather a fascination.

Broadly understood is the Calvinist image of an industrious, penurious Scot. And it is certainly true that if I had ever taken pleasure in something expensive as a child, my grandmother would have whipped it out of me. Those Calvinists were Presbyterians who supported the Hanoverian (Protestant, William of Orange) succession to the British throne which was codified by the Act of Settlement in 1701. Less understood is these Protestant alliances between Scots and the British were not the only game in town. Not in Scotland; nor in Canada. In the middle of the 1500’s Mary, Queen of Scots, had been married to Francois, Dauphin of France, and a Catholic. French sensibilities, including culinary traditions from the era of Louis XIV in the 1600’s, were well appreciated by certain segments of the population in Scotland. During the crucial 1700’s Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart) was both a Catholic and an active campaigner for the British throne. He inspired the Jacobite Movement in Scotland (eventually crushed by the British at the Battle of Cullodon, 1745). Today the wildlife, and extensive shoreline, of Scotland combine with long-practiced French cooking skills to create an extraordinary (if not widely recognized) cuisine.

Jump now to Acadia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada at the beginning of the 1700’s. Originally settled by French Catholics, Acadia was occupied by British troops in 1710, and Nova Scotia was established in 1713. Subsequently 12,000 French settlers were expelled (between 1755 and 1763). Many of them became the ancestors of today’s Cajuns in Louisiana. No one ever accused New Orleans Cajuns of lacking for culinary tradition. Nova Scotia isn’t exactly world-renown for fine wines today, but they do have a grape growers’ association and 13 wineries; up from 4 wineries in 2000.

Which brings us full-circle to a highland dancer from Nova Scotia who was named Drinks Writer of the Year in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards. It is my speculation that ascetic Scottish followers of John Calvin, rubbing shoulders over 400 years with neighbors who embraced a much more sensuous French culture (cf: the Quebecois), developed a rather intense love/hate relationship with luxuries such as wines. We like them a lot; we just like somebody else to pay for them. It may be akin to Catholics finding sex so much more exciting because of guilt imposed by the church.

Natalie MacLean has parlayed this little Scottish personality ambiguity into a rapidly ascendant career. I’m a fan. I first noticed a piece she’d written several years ago on rosé wines. Her theme was how studly those wines could be. If I hadn’t seen her name on the masthead, I would have assumed it was written by a longshoreman philosopher (think Erik Hoffer or Charles Bukowski). I believe I may have I sent her a mash note. She writes prolifically about wines from all over the world, yet always pulls back to recommend modestly priced examples which she pointedly claims to be drinking, and enjoying, herself at home with her husband. She never portrays getting a little buzz on as anything other than a really good thing. She is famous in Canada for her decidedly unpretentious style, which is not the same as using simple, lazy prose (in the manner of John Madden’s commentary on football). The woman studied Nineteenth Century English Literature at Oxford. She was a Finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. She’s plenty bright. She just doesn’t feel the need to strike authoritative poses. At the end of the day, her talent is to be a storyteller, a woman of the people. There are many wooden apparatchiks blogging today who think writing about wine will somehow add texture and color to their personalities. They tend to produce databases in narrative form. By contrast Natalie MacLean has an ear for interesting elements in a story, and she’s smart enough to present them in clear declarative sentences. It’s the way she arranges them that’s unusual and noteworthy.


XMAS GIFT RECOMMENDATION ~ Natalie’s latest book came out this Fall: Unquenchable. Find it on Amazon. Hardcover $16.00.

Unquenchable is a concept book; at once very efficient for the writer and for the reader. It covers a lot of ground (eight disparate wine producing regions around the world), but does so by telling stories about highlights ~ much as one might do at dinner with friends after returning from a trip abroad. Natalie says technical detail about wine production bores her. She only provides enough to act as background on why certain wines are special. Instead she concentrates on people. She picks a handful of well-known, respected wineries, then sets out to provide a window on the subject region by describing the people she meets while visiting. In an era when consumers are submerged in irrelevant wine data assembled by amateurs, it’s quite enjoyable to read wine stories where a professional author has chosen to throw out mountains of chaff in order to reveal the most entertaining grains of wheat.

This is a book for the mass-market. You don’t need an advanced wine credential, nor a lot of tasting experience, in order to enjoy it. There are chapters on major players: Australia, Germany, France’s Provence, and Portugal’s Duoro Port region. But there are also evocative chapters on less well-recognized producing regions: Sicily, Argentina’s Mendoza destrict, South Africa’s Western Cape, and Natalie’s local Niagara Peninsula. It’s a cornucopia of styles and stories, sculpted by a large number of adroit editorial choices.

You’ll like it. I did. Your boss and your uncle will too.

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