Ten years ago Helen McGinn sat down to write her first blog as her alias ‘The Knackered Mother’ with no more intention of it being something to share with her family and some close friends. A decade later she is publishing the second edition of her award-winning Knackered Mother’s Wine Guide, that did so much to transform what wine means to so many everyday drinkers – both mums and dads – and is able to look back on countless TV appearances, being a regular on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, and having a long-standing column in the Daily Mail. Here she shares the highs of what it’s like being Helen McGinn and the ‘Knackered Mother’ at the same time.
You don’t need to be knackered and you don’t even need to be a mum to enjoy the “The Knackered Mother’s Wine Guide”. It’s certainly, though transformed the life of former supermarket wine buyer Helen McGinn.
Now I know you have not exactly been away as Helen McGinn but the Knackered Mother persona is back with your new paperback…tell us why you are looking to relaunch and update it now and how did that come about?
I wrote the book about eight years ago and future-proofed it as much as I could but (rather brilliantly) the wine landscape has changed with new regions emerging and old grape varieties coming back into favour. So my publisher asked me to tweak the book to reflect that.
So what exactly can we look forward to in the new updated Knackered Mother’s Wine Guide?
Last time round there was a passing mention for organic and natural wines; the same goes for English wine. And crémant and orange wines were practically unheard of in the UK. There’s lots more good stuff happening in places like South Africa and Australia in particular, so it was great to get in a few more references of what to look out for there.
Are you off a on a book signing tour to promote it?
We’ve got some really great collaborations planned with non-wine brands to help get the book out to a new audience, mostly involving drinking wine in a relaxed setting. Quite my favourite way to promote a book! And I’ll be doing more festivals again this year, they’re always great fun to do.
How do you look back now on the whole Knackered Mother experience from when you first started writing your blog and what it has achieved and brought to you?
The blog was 10 years old last year and I remember hitting ‘publish’ on that first post thinking at least my mum and sister would read it. I had three children under five at the time so the blog was my way of carving out time to focus on something other than work or kids. I’m just glad I didn’t think about it too much. I had no idea it would lead to so many opportunities. I just posted and hoped people would find it useful. And funny, obviously.
There have been many highlights but can you pick out a few?
Getting that first book deal was a game-changer. I got an email from a publisher who’d spotted the blog and thought it would make a good book. The whole process was a complete dream.
I’ve done plenty of wine tastings over the years but one particular tasting stands out, not least because I was wearing a gold catsuit and sharing a stage with DJ Sara Cox and comedians The Scummy Mummies with a tent full of knackered mothers.
There’ve been some priceless TV moments too. Conducting a wine tasting with Sooty & Sweep was one of the more surreal moments of my life.
Anything that has actually been more of a struggle and really taken you outside your comfort zone?
After almost 10 years as a supermarket wine buyer then five years on the marketing side, the thought of going out on my own was terrifying. But I knew I had to change the way I worked to fit around my family and do what I really wanted to do. There were definitely moments when I had to remind myself not to look down. And the first time I did live TV I was very much out of my comfort zone. I just didn’t tell anyone.
You have also as a result had a fair bit of contact with celebrities along the way, can you share any good stories with us?
Well, there was the actress who came on a chat show, apparently didn’t drink and then polished off the entire flight of sherries before we even got to the tasting. And once I got lost in the ITV studios doing This Morning and walked into the wrong dressing room to find three Love Island contestants in their swimming trunks. I didn’t know where to look.
You are also now a regular on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. How did that come about and how do you find that?
I got a call asking if I could come and do the show last October and have been back once a month since. It’s such a great show. I get to eat amazing food and talk about wine with brilliant people. I love it.
How do you go about choosing the wines you recommend?
We’re given the dishes in advance so we can cook them at home and find the right match for them. I’ll try out lots of different wines and even though I usually have a pretty good idea of what’ll work, I love finding a surprise pairing.
Is it strange mixing with household names when you are all there to do a job as well?
Yes, and I definitely haven’t quite got the hang of being casual around them despite having done it for a while. When I did Saturday Kitchen with Jason Donovan recently I had to be reminded to not stare at him when he wasn’t speaking because it was a bit of a giveaway.
And the first time I did This Morning, I had to stop myself from shouting ‘YOU’RE SO BEAUTIFUL!’ in Holly Willoughby’s face (she is unbelievably gorgeous).
You also have your regular column in the Daily Mail. How do you approach that? Who do you see as your target audience and what is the brief you get from the Daily Mail about what they want?
I write regular features for them on anything drinks-related. Sometimes it might be off the back of a news story or looking at a new trend. The editors there are amazing – they really know their audience. It’s great to have the opportunity to write about anything from amber wine to sparkling tea in an engaging, informative way (I hope!) especially given the size of the audience.
Do you still have plans and ambitions for the Knackered Mother persona?
I absolutely love writing the blog and as long as readers find it useful, I’ll keep doing it. Some have set up their own wine tasting groups with friends and I get emails every week from people asking for wine advice. At some stage I might have to change to Knackered Granny. Not quite yet, though.
You have been writing a successful blog for 10 years and built up a a loyal following, what do you see as being the trick to writing an effective, interesting and successful blog?
When I started the blog back in 2009, it really did have an audience of three. But that meant I had time to find my voice. So by the time people were reading it that weren’t actually related to me, I’d developed a format and style that felt right. I think the key to building a following is consistency so for the first eight years I posted every single week. Now it’s more like every other week but I still look forward to posting just as much as I ever did. Especially now I’ve got stories to share about meeting household names.
Is it sometimes a struggle and if so how do you get through them and finding new things to write about?
If I’m not feeling it, I won’t post. I think it has to flow. But that’s the beauty of posting once a week, or once every other week. There’s plenty of time in between to think about what I might write about. I formulate blog posts in my head on the way back from the school run, on the train, in my weekly Pilates class (don’t tell my teacher, I’m supposed to be concentrating on my core strength). And it’s not like we’re ever going to run out of wines to recommend.
You spent so much of your career working in the stressful world of a supermarket wine buyer – do you miss the cut and thrust of wine buying? And if so what do you miss?
I was lucky enough to work as a buyer at a time when you could stick a Mexican Chardonnay on the shelves and just hope it sold (it didn’t). It was exciting and adventurous and I felt like Charlie Bucket with his winning ticket.
I don’t miss the pace but I definitely miss the people – we had a fantastic team. And the novelty of travelling the world had definitely worn off by the time I left to go on maternity leave. Mind you, the idea of a few nights in a hotel anywhere without kids is very tempting nowadays.
What don’t you miss from buying professionally for the trade?
In your new consumer writing role what is the best way for suppliers and producers to contact you about any new wines they have?
Email me! Knackeredmother@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from anyone with a good story to tell.
Finally…where is the best place for a Knackered Mother to go for a drink?
In the bath. Then you don’t even have to get dressed up.
Where is the best place for a Knackered Mother to go and eat and drink?
I live in the New Forest so I’ve got The Pig and Lime Wood down the road and my local pub, the East End Arms, is brilliant too. I re-did their wine list recently, mostly so I could get my favourites by the glass on there. But my absolute favourite place is round a kitchen table with friends, especially when my only job is to open the wine.
- The Knackered Mother’s Wine Guide is out now. Click here to buy.