Hunger And Thirst: Roxane Gay x Oriol Artigas

Welcome to my first edition of #aperohourweekly in many months!

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of memoir and marvelling at the way that a well-written account of someone’s life, despite being entirely personal, can have universal ramifications. American writer Roxane Gay’s 2017 Hunger is testament to how the so-called “obesity epidemic” in the U.S. (and elsewhere) requires a broad, cultural shift in order to address its roots. It’s also a book about trauma and sexual assault. Anyone who has experienced either will strongly identify with Gay’s quest to overcome their impact on her life. But the book has lessons for those who have not been subject to such difficulties — because chances are, someone you know has.

Disordered eating was extremely prevalent when I was growing up. Teen women’s magazines were enjoying popularity, and they all promoted weight-loss and idolized thin models and celebrities. Fiona Apple’s anorexic body writhed like a snake in her music video, Criminal. On the TV show Friends, Jennifer Aniston went from probably a size 10 to a 6 over the course of a few seasons, and her colleague Courtney Cox was presumably anorexic for years. I loved the show Ally McBeal, whose shockingly thin protagonist seemed to live off air and occasional pints of ice cream.

In high school, I had a close friend who began working out both before and after school. At lunch she was seen eating grapes. Within months, she was a skeleton, with fuzzy hair all over her arms. Everyone complimented her. Other friends talked constantly about how imperfect their bodies were. At sixteen, we were often on diets. I had my own struggles with disordered eating.

Roxane Gay was not propelled into disordered eating merely because of cultural influences. She experienced an absolutely shattering sexual assault at the age of 12. Her life was altered forever, and she turned to food as her outlet. At her heaviest, she weighed 577 pounds.

Hunger is a brutally honest portrayal of Gay’s trauma, ongoing suffering, overeating, and attempts to heal herself. It also shares perspective on being “fat” in a society that worships thinness and fitness. The book is not a weight-loss success story; Gay is still “a woman of size,” as she puts it, and continues to struggle with her initial trauma.

Gay attends “fat camps” as a teenager, runs away from her Ivy League education to work as a phone-sex operator while exploring her queerness, considers gastric bypass surgery, and continues overeating and dating people who mistreat her, believing she deserves such abuse. Over time, Gay recounts in the book, she begins to find some joy in cooking. As I read about her suffering, I was waiting for this sliver of hope. I still remember, in university, when I lived with four amazing fellow students (all women) who loved to cook — and I don’t mean just throwing pasta into water. We made lasagna, shepherd’s pie, and roast chicken, all from scratch. We drank wine as we prepared our meal. We cooked for ourselves, not for boyfriends, because we wanted to eat well. We deserved it.

It was still some years before I completely embraced the pleasure of eating well, partly because for most of my twenties, I struggled to pay rent and tuition, and food seemed like an excessive luxury. But over time, I began visiting the Union Square farmer’s market, in New York. I stopped feeling guilty whenever I ate a proper, balanced dinner at a cafe, rather than shoving 2-dollar falafel or 1-dollar pizza into my mouth on the way to the library for a night of studying.

When I discovered natural wine, I found a new level of deliciousness, and an extreme form of pleasure that became a point-of-no-return for me. Once I understood the bottom line of these wines — organic farming, ethical production, minimal additions — my entire lifestyle was transformed. Understanding natural wine as a product of environmentally-conscious artisanship carried over into what I ate: I began to deeply consider the origins of the food I bought, prepared, and ate, every day.

As my friendships formed around natural wine, I found a community with which to share my newfound love for gastronomic enjoyment. I remember the first time I splurged on a dining experience: my friends and I went to Contra, the Lower East Side tasting menu restaurant where only natural wine is served. We each paid $200 and it was the most enthralling experience I’d had in recent years. Yes, I had student loans to pay, and it was harder to make rent that month — but I felt that the meal had enriched me as much as seeing a great work of theater or months of psychotherapy might.

I chose a wine from Oriol Artigas to pair alongside Roxane Gay’s book — but honestly, it was chosen at random. It could have been any great natural wine. The point I wanted to make is that reading Hunger helped me relive my own struggles to love myself, to feed and nurture myself healthfully, and to believe that I deserve pleasure, just because I am human.

In some moments, it was hard for me to read Gay’s words — because as much as she says she hates being hugged by strangers, hates cooking for herself, and feels reluctant about eating healthy and working out, I wanted to assure her that all of these things can actually bring true joy on a daily basis, and that they can make life worth living, or at least more bearable.

Oriol Artigas makes natural wine in an area called Alella, north of Barcelona. His wines are undoubtedly full of joy. He holds down a job teaching at an oenology school in order to pursue his passion for natural winemaking. He isn’t living a life of luxury. But that’s largely what natural wine is — people who have really found joy in these lighthearted, quirky wines, and devoted themselves to them in pursuit of the utmost pleasure. It’s a pleasure that also revolves around an ethically and socially minded community, rather than pure hedonism.

I happened to have Oriol’s wine handy because it’s featured in Pipette Magazine Issue 4, which has printed and is shipping now — you can order your copy online, or find it at a stockist in your town.

We all have to deny ourselves pleasure, sometimes. But my experiences have taught me that the joy of eating and drinking well can carry over into every other aspect of our lives. We can learn self-care by changing how we eat and drink. And we can support each other in these goals. I am grateful to every roommate or colleague I had who cooked with me or went halves with me to splurge on a bottle of wine.

I wish more young people could be exposed to gastronomic pleasures. I really suffered during my adolescent years of disordered eating. If they had gone on longer, they could have had lasting or even permanent detriments to my physical health. “Thinness” is bullshit. Enjoying real food, sharing great wine, and finding joy in self-care are true beacons in this world.

Roxane Gay has written several books of fiction as well as the highly-acclaimed 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist, which I look forward to reading sometime. I think Hunger does justice to the reality that so many of us have experienced at one point, to a certain degree: that American society has a really unhealthy and contradictory approach to eating and body image. Although that may be changing in certain subcultures, broader society is still hung-up on weight-loss TV shows and Jenny Craig plans, stuck in a cycle of self-punishment and longing for an unattainable body.

Thanks for reading this #aperohourweekly post! I hope I’ll be sharing these write-ups more regularly now. You can follow the tag below to find previous editions. Also see the “Natural Wine Producer Profiles” section to find in-depth stories about winemakers. And subscribe to Pipette (print-only) if you want to learn more about the natural wine movement!

Impressions of Italy, Because I Miss It, a la Renata Adler

In my five-day “intensive Italian course” in Milan, we learned the difference between a “trattoria” — an inexpensive, family-run restaurant — and “osteria” — traditionally, where men would bring in their own food and drink the house wine, a privilege for which they paid a small fee, hence the origin of the ubiquitous “cover charge” now found throughout Italy, which today includes bread and filtered water.

The teacher, an energetic woman in her early thirties, responded this way when one student asked her what she thought about pineapple-topped pizza, which she had purportedly eaten the night before:

“Va bene, va bene, oh poor Italia. I think” — this is my translation — “that pineapple on pizza, it cannot be. No, this is not pizza. You ate that, here in Milan? Oh, it cannot be. I think that’s the end — poor Italia.”

Two nights later, a friend asked me to come with her to her new favorite local pizza place. From our table, we watched the pizzaiolo swirling dough in the air before topping it and giving it fire in the neapolitano oven. We wound up ordering a pizza with black olives, nduja, and provolone. What would my Italian teacher think? I wondered, feeling guilty as I ate a slice.

I went to the Fondazione Prada, mostly just to have the famous pink cake at Bar Luce. Then I decided to tour the museum. Every time I tried to go in one direction, someone stopped me and told me I was in the “special exhibits” section.

The “permanent” section was in a tall building, and I walked up many, many flights of stairs, only to find myself staring a collection of brightly-colored stainless steel shapes: the bouquet of tulips, a larger and more recent version of which Jeff Koons made as a commission for the city of Paris. The mayor rejected it upon the revelation that he was only “gifting the idea” of the sculpture and expected Paris to pay 3.5 million Euro for its installation. I huffed and puffed, exhausted from the heat and the labyrinthine museum, and wondered if I was the only person who felt that Wes Anderson’s cake was more interesting than the artwork.

At the apartment where I was staying, the floor of the building consisted of a mosaic of multi-colored tiles. The Italians, I thought — every day they walk on art.

*

 

Turin was the capital of Savoy, from 1563 until the risorgimiento, and then it became the first capital of Italy. My friend Gaba and I danced through the 16th-century Palazzo, craning our necks at the domed ceiling, pretending our shoes were good enough for those aristocratic floors. We left the building parched, and immediately ate gelatos, after which we felt much butter.

Late at night, we stood in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, and read the late king’s Wikipedia entry. We shuddered at the way his reign handed itself over to fascism, imagining that moment like a dark cloud that hung over Italy for decades. Gaba and I had both recently finished Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels, and we recalled the scenes in which undercover fascist thugs cause communist gatherings to turn violent.

We often remarked over our 10-Euro aperitivo meals (artichoke crostini, horse tartare that only Gaba was brave enough to pick at, a spritz for me and a Negroni for her) that we were uncannily like the novels’ protagonists, Elena and Lila. But their friendship ended in silent, painful mistrust. Only novels, we reminded ourselves.

 

*

 

From our hotel in Castello we walked, pausing quickly at the little bakery for a frothy cappuccino, to the vaporetto stop. The boat came quickly and we boarded, crossing our fingers we had the direction correct. Twenty minutes later, we arrived to Lido. We headed toward the beach along a street full of restaurants and bars. I pointed at some neon-colored, frozen drinks being served out of a machine.

We asked for one of each color, with rum added. They were strong as hell, so we bought ourselves some tramenzzini, and the little crustless sandwiches filled our bellies just enough. At the beach, we paid 20 Euro for chairs under an umbrella, and then raced over the sand, which was scalding. We had to stop once in the shade of someone else’s umbrella just to generate more strength to run again through the hot sand.

We left the beach in the late afternoon to find a small lunch shack, where we ordered melon-and-proscuitto salad and piadinas. The abandoned Hotel des Bains, once luxurious beach-side lodging, now a vacant shell of previous times, owned by some distant Saudis, beckoned us to sneak over the fence and inside — but our sunburns had exhausted us.

We gazed through the gates at the hotel, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, and which inspired his novel Death In Venice. Would it still be here, the next time we returned to Lido, we wondered — or will it be torn down, replaced by something shiny and new?

There is a Burger King now, in Venice. People eat their American fast food hamburgers while walking in sneakers over streets that are over a thousand years old.

 

*

 

Mostly, when I feel this strange sensation that I deeply miss Italy, a place I have only traveled and rather briefly, it comes to me as a smear of all these moments, brushed together into a blurry combined memory, like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, like a gelato with too many flavors. You have to lick it up before it melts.

Beau Paysage in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

We’ve all felt trembles inside while tasting very special wines, but experiencing an earthquake as I sipped a world-class Pinot Gris was a new thing for me.

In Japan, of course, earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence. It’s an island that is harsh to inhabit in many ways, and it’s certainly not the easiest climate for growing wine grapes.

Given the intense humidity of Japan, hybrid grapes are very popular. The red grape Muscat Bailey-A is the most planted grape in Japan; you’ll also encounter the white grape Koshu, perhaps skin-fermented, as well as the North American hybrid Niagara and Kerner from Germany. Still, there’s strong enthusiasm for European vitis vinifera across the country.

Chatting with Eishi Okamoto of Beau Paysage in Tsegane

In Yamanashi prefecture, the main wine-growing region of Japan, the winemaker Eishi Okamoto farms 3 hectares of French varieties and produces wines of elegance that will stir something inside you, even if there are no tectonic plates moving below when you try them. His label is called Beau Paysage.

We visited Eishi on a very warm and sunny early August day. First, we stopped into the vineyards, in a town called Tsegane, which is a plateau sitting at 800 meters above sea level, surrounded by the mountains known as the “Japanese Alps.”

Eishi, who is a trim man probably in his forties, and quite shy — later in the day, after many glasses of wine, he laughed open-mouthed, but until then he was very reserved — pointed out the varieties as we passed through the rows, which as you can see are trellised with the vertical shoot system.

The vine canopies were carefully hedged on top, work Eishi does by hand. He never plows, just lets the weeds grow in between the rows. There was primarily Merlot, as well as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Pinot Blanc (and a mutation that produces yellow grapes, which Eishi has dubbed Pinot d’Or), Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Much of the vineyard is volcanic soil. Eishi planted these vines in 1999-2000.

The farming in Tsegane is primarily organic. However, since 2011 Eishi has resorted to using a synthetic fungicide in the vineyards to combat something called “banper” disease, which he says would cause absolute destruction.

The rest of the day was spent leisurely tasting Eishi’s wines and discussing them, as well as natural wine more generally, with the help of our mutual friends, the natural wine distributor Lulie Cross and the natural wine journalist Junko Nakahama, who translated back-and-forth. Eishi’s wife served us some homemade egg-and-veggie sushi, as well as cold soba. Their young kids came in and out of the kitchen and at one point I curled up on the couch with them to let the older one read to me from their picture books.

We listened to classical and jazz — in fact, Eishi has commissioned a few albums of music compiled to match his wines, but it’s not just an aesthetic project, he sells the booklets that accompany these albums as a fundraiser to create awareness about the prevalence of sugar being added to wine throughout Japan. Eishi explained that this sugar is sourced from places like Brazil, where its growth contributes to the destruction of rainforests. I’ll admit, the connection between classical music and sugar monocropping might not seem obvious — but I know that it can feel impossible to make any political statement within the culture of wine, so I admire the effort.

One other interesting thing Eishi said was regarding sorting the grapes upon harvest — something he does not do, which surprised me given his seemingly meticulous nature and the tidiness of his sparse winery. But Eishi asked us to “imagine a movie theater that only allowed in the young and healthy…” If he made wine like this, Eishi said, it would be “too uniform.” He “prefers harmony.” I thought that was such a lovely explanation.

We briefly saw the winery, although not much was going on. If you want to learn more about Eishi’s winemaking, including his very special bottling technique, definitely check out this post by the veteran natural wine blogger Bert of Wine Terroirs — he visited when the winery was more in action.

Eishi doesn’t see Beau Paysage as a beacon of natural winemaking — in fact, he wasn’t even aware of the concept, and simply felt he was working within a tradition of Japanese craftmanship, until an influential Tokyo-based wine bar owner and importer, the recently passed Shinsaku Katsuyama, visited Eishi’s winery with a bottle from the Alsatian winemaker Bruno Schueller. That wine and that encounter showed Eishi how natural winemaking was a global movement, and pushed him further in the non-interventionist direction.

Below are my impressions of the wines we tasted at Eishi’s house, surrounded by rice paddies. Note that recent vintages have been made without sulfur additions. We also had the pleasure of trying the 2014 Chardonnay a few days earlier in Tokyo, and it was a wonderful bottle, elegantly balanced between round and mineral aspects, with stonefruit and citric notes in harmony. It was aged with some new oak, which is a practice Eishi employs largely because of the lack of neutral oak available in Japan. The new oak didn’t bother me too much although it was noticeable. If you find the bottle, I recommend cellaring it.

The experimental Pinot d’Or wine
  • 2017 Pinot d’Or – Eishi managed to produce 15 bottles of this varietal anomaly! We really liked it — 11% ABV with a slight orange hue from three weeks’ maceration; with notes of fresh-cut grass and white peach and a warm, inviting texture. Since he had a very small amount of Pinot d’Or grapes, Eishi put them on top of Chardonnay must in the basket press he uses for all his wines (you cannot get enough leverage to press if the amount is too minuscule). The wine was aged in large sake bottles (very practical!).

 

  • 2015 “A HUM” Sauvignon Blanc – I was so interested to find out that Eishi’s whites are named “A HUM” after the full pronunciation of the word many yoga practitioners know as “OM.” This wine also received three weeks of skin contact — all of the whites ferment and age in stainless steel, by the way — he has these nice 225-Liter stainless drums. It had a nose of lemon drops and yellow peaches, and the wine had a stunning balance of minerality, notes of yuzu and blood orange, and a soft but lasting finish. I really liked this one. (Note that the A HUM white wines are distinguished only by the color of the words on the label!)

 

  • 2014 “A HUM” Pinot Blanc – Most people don’t think of Pinot Blanc as an exciting variety, but Eishi would prove them wrong! This was a floral wine with incredible texture, balanced acidity, overtones of hazelnut, and a quite serious structure. Three weeks of maceration. My favorite of the whites.

 

  • 2013 “A HUM” Pinot Gris – A reddish, darker hue than the other whites. This wine struck me as quite Friulian (indeed, Eishi is a fan of Vodopivec‘s wines, which are from the general area near Friuli). Lower in acidity than the other whites, with soft fruitiness, I found it lovely.

  • 2003 Pinot Noir – This was the second vintage of Beau Paysage Pinot Noir. You won’t find it on the market, we were lucky to taste! The nose was crushed roses and burnt caramel, with a richly textured palate of dried orange peels — very complex. Beautiful.

 

  • 2014 Cabernet Franc “La Bois” – Tannic, dark cherry, fresh boysenberry. The reds are aged in small oak barrels, and maybe some stainless, too. I liked the Cabernet Franc I’ll admit that the whites impressed me more.

If you want to read more about Japanese natural wine culture, stay tuned for Pipette Magazine’s forthcoming Issue 4, where I’ll feature several of Tokyo’s best drinking and dining establishments as well as more insight into natural winemaking in Japan. The Issue (print-only) will be available for pre-order on the magazine website in September, as well as via stockists around the world in early October.

Thank you to Eishi and his wife for the visit and to Lulie for arranging the trip. Japanese viticulture and winemaking are going to become more and more exciting as the years carry on. I hope some progress can be made in terms of finding ways to farm organically despite the climate.

In Memory of Ned Benedict, A Great Human And Wine Importer

When you are a young, upstart, female freelance wine journalist, the people who support and help you are extremely few and far between. That means you will definitely remember them for many years to come.

Being a natural wine writer, furthermore, puts you in a weird position, especially in a place like New York. People in the natural wine crowd there, at least the more old-school types, don’t really think it’s “cool” to write about wine. They prefer the secret-society model, where “if you know, you know” is the motto. Meanwhile, the top-somms who sling Grand Cru Burgundy and cult Rieslings would be quick to insult the general “natural” category for embracing too many “flawed” wines.

I’m sure some of that has changed now—I hope that Pipette Magazine has shown how natural wine writing can be different. But when I lived in New York, I often felt very alone in my quest to document natural wine culture—without a mentor or support network.

A few people showed me kindness and generosity and took me seriously as a professional. One of those was Ned Benedict of the wine imports company Grand Cru Selections, who recently passed away tragically at a too-young age. I met Ned at the annual “International Pinot Noir Celebration” event in Oregon. He introduced himself and said he’d heard of me—I was incredibly flattered—then introduced his colleague Brian and asked me to join them at Rajat Parr’s table, where Premier Cru Dauvissat was being poured like it was Evian. The esteemed Marquis d’Angerville was sitting at the table, serving a vertical of his Burgundy wines. I pretended like it was no big deal, but it truly was. I felt included, allowed to hang with the “top dogs.”

Soon after, Ned invited me to lunch at Felidia, an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side. I wondered why he wanted to chat with me. I wrote mainly about natural wines, for hardly-visible websites and my own blog, at that point. Ned was at ease, ordering whatever he felt like drinking, and treating me like a friend, not trying to see what I could “do” for him and his business. Of course, Grand Cru is very successful and doesn’t need any journalist props, but I still appreciated the attitude.

I was always invited to Grand Cru tastings after that, and saw Ned at parties, where he always poured me whatever special, rare wine he was drinking.

Ned also reached out to me when there was an opening at a very special lunch highlighting several Grower Champagnes. I remember, I was at the gym in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when he called, and for some reason I answered. “I’ll be there in an hour,” I said, and I rushed home, showered, and got on the train as quickly as possible. I had no suitable shoes to wear, so I bought some black pumps on 6th Avenue for $60 before arriving to Gunter Seeger for the lunch. I was seated at a table with the eminent Champagne writer Peter Liem, whose work of course I knew. I later went on to visit several Champagne growers with Peter. It was all thanks to Ned thinking of me, and making that call.

Whatever I needed, I felt I could ask Ned, and he’d let me know if he could help—if I wanted to visit a producer, or if I had a question for an article, or if a somm friend was looking for a job.

My deepest condolences go out to those who work with Ned, those who love him and consider him a close friend and family. He will be remembered by many in the world of wine and food and beyond, as a kind, generous, thoughtful human being who loved wine, loved to support people, and knew how to be great company.

Drinking With Women

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In 1964, a British woman named Nell Dunn sat down with nine women she knew — most of whom were educated, creative professionals, writing books or making art — and with each one, opened a bottle of wine, and recorded their conversation. They spoke freely and openly about their passions and creative ambitions, and how they were affected by being a woman. They discussed love, sex, men, lesbianism, marriage, and then had more discussion about how all of these related to their creative work.

In 2018, a friend and I gather at her flat in Paris 11ème and open a bottle of wine. It is a light red made of the grape Poulsard, from the eastern French region the Jura. And because it is so light, we can discuss heavy topics, things that matter to us: our relationships, our families, our finances, my friend’s newborn child — and how all these things impact our creative and professional ambitions. The wine is an ideal companion to our closeness.

Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women tempted me from various bookstores in London until I finally gave in and bought it. I’d never heard of her of this book, which caused a sensation in the Sixties and which someone, for whatever reason, decided to republish. Why republish this book now? Maybe because the topics that Dunn and her peers covered back in 1964 are still quite relevant for many women today.

Women continue to question whether we can “have it all” in terms of balancing love and family and work, and society as a whole still grapples with the relevance of marriage. In those days, I think, the crumbling of religion’s hold upon society was a bit more recent, and because of this, many of the women Dunn interviews profess adamantly that they don’t believe in marriage. Their views are not, however, entirely progressive. Some of them also have definitely bigoted views toward queer sexuality. And Dunn’s one conversation with a woman from a working-class background reveals her lack of sensitivity to such cultural differences.

But aside from those points, I was struck by the idea that this book could have been written today. I found it captivating to read, and often sad, as many of the women seem truly resigned to either choosing the creative life or motherhood. It’s a book that I think all creative women will enjoy spending some time with.

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And Jean-Baptiste Menigoz‘s Poulsard is the perfect bottle to enjoy while reading it, or even better, to open when you want to have a nice long conversation with a friend. As with most Poulsard, the wine is light and pretty, low in alcohol, almost a mere distraction rather than being the center of attention. It’s a wine that knows how to be subtle; it speaks articulately without blasting information about itself. Whispers of fresh and dried strawberries; the fragrance of violets; the kiss of a tart black cherry.

It’s been pretty shitty emotionally for many of us these past few weeks as we’ve observed what happens when a woman speaks out. When she tells the world of her abuse. As the Kavanaugh trial was underway in my home country of the U.S., I watched online from my little sublet apartment in Paris, with Dunn’s book by my side. I thought about how little has changed for women, in so many ways — that our words are still cast aside as untrustworthy or quickly raked over by the somehow more authoritative male voice, admonishing a woman who has shared the truth that many would have preferred not to hear.

I know that wine and politics are not necessarily meant to be drawn into a parallel together. But drinking that bottle of Menigoz in Paris with my friend, who also lvoes natural wine for its frankness, transparency, and stark beauty, I felt there was something to be said about the need for honesty in our every day lives. Maybe it’s this need that really motivates me to seek out natural wines. I feel I can trust them. I also feel I can trust people who are also fans of natural wine, who are actively supporting natural winemakers. It’s a very comforting world to exist in.

Reading Dunn’s book, I also feel that not very much has changed in women’s lives, in as much as there’s a constant tension between creativity and femininity, in so many ways. The conversations in the book are often refreshing to me, as well as challenging. “I want to feel myself a human being first and a woman second,” says Frances, a 27-year-old mother of two and a furniture maker. I think this book called to me because it seems like there’s a need for more honest conversation between people these days.

These women in 1964, talking about everything in their hearts — writing, art, sex, divorce — remind me of the universal need to share our stories, whether intimately with one close friend, or in our published work, or publicly with the entire world; and it calls to mind as well the importance of being properly heard, listened to.

If any of you do venture to read Dunn’s book, I’d love to hear what you think! It’s a strange thing to dive into but I’m glad I did so. And I definitely recommend finding Menigoz’s wines; they are always so ethereal and lovely, with adorable cuvée names that seem like an inside joke between the winemaker and a buddy (“tôt ou tard” means “early or late”); they are never high in alcohol or too bold in flavor — the perfect backdrop for a conversation about books, politics, love, or nothing at all.

Making Pét-Nat Is A Bitch (So Enjoy Drinking It!!!)

If you google me deeply enough, you’ll find many published quotes from me, c 2015, along these lines:

“Pét-nat is the simpler, more fun version of Champagne.”

“Because pét-nat — short for pétillant-naturel, as in French for ‘natural sparkler’ — requires only one fermentation, it is easier to make than Champagne.”

“Want something to crush on the patio? Grab a fun, easygoing pét-nat!”

Ohhhhh, how little I knew.

The first statement, I will qualify, is definitely true. But now that I have actually made pét-nat, from grape to glass, having done nearly every single thing minus farming the grapes and some work involving forklifts (forklifts kind of terrify me), I can testify that pét-nat is NOT easy to make.

While it is certainly fun and easygoing to DRINK, the actual making of pét-nat involves intense PRECISION and KNOWLEDGE, coupled with hours upon hours of dutiful, exhausting, repetitive handwork.

If you already follow me, you are aware that I am in the middle of a natural winemaking journey, which takes place in South Australia. I’ve been fortunate to produce some wines under my own brand, Persephone Wines. It’s a wild ride.

Of course, when I was given this opportunity, I thought, I’ll make pét-nat! Because I love nothing more than a good bottle of fizz. So, I am going to share here the process, from start to finish. It will be a long post, but if you bear with me, you’ll have a deep understanding of how sparkling wine is made and why you should really appreciate every bottle you consume.

I know that there has recently been a bit of an Internet drama regarding some California pét-nats that were made in a rather industrial style. There has also, in the past, been debate over the proper definition of a pét-nat. As writer Zach Sussman has pointed out, the term is new, but the style seems to be very old; therefore, pét-nat is a postmodern phenomenon (when the old, abandoned way becomes new and cool again).

Sussman writes that,

“Many of today’s ancestral method wines undergo a technological approximation of this process through temperature control, artificially halting fermentation in the tank via refrigeration. After several weeks, the half-fermented juice is then bottled and the fermentation resumes. Pét-nat, on the other hand, almost always goes straight from tank to bottle—an uninterrupted continuation of the primary fermentation.”

But in many cases, including mine, that’s not exactly true. I’ll explain why later.

Furthermore, Zach says that pét-nat is generally bottled with the “lees” — and then released without disgorgement.

“Unlike many ancestral method wines, which are disgorged in the interest of creating a more stable commercial product, pét-nat is almost always bottled with the deposit of dead yeast intact: hence the style’s signature cloudiness.”

It’s true that disgorgement has typically been associated with Champagne method wines. But many pét-nats today are, in fact, disgorged, and in my opinion, it very much improves their drinkability by making them less explosive.

Sussman wrote that piece in 2015, and I really think that since then, partly because of the success of wines like Les Capriades, a lot more producers now seem to be opting to disgorge. (Les Capriades is an all pét-nat house in the Loire Valley that disgorges religiously, written about very nicely in that link by France-based author Emily Dilling.)

And disgorgement is one of the reasons that making pét-nat is such a bitch!

Read on to find out how incredibly tiresome and annoying (but ultimately rewarding) it was.

Picking the Grapes

Because I am a bit of a sucker for Champagne, I opted to make my pét-nat with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These were picked in the early days of harvest — the Pinot was one of our very first picks, starting on 24 February, and the Chardonnay came soon after.

A wonderful picking crew was employed by beloved, incredibly knowledgeable mentor Anton Van Klopper of Lucy Margaux Wines, and so those of us who were more on the winery crew were tasked with carrying buckets and sorting out any bad berries (there were very few). All organically farmed fruit, by the way. That’s important for making natural wine! Vital! Nothing good can happen in the winery without growers who are willing to farm without pesticides or other chemicals.

(From left bottom corner going clockwise, in the photo above: that’s Alberto, who until recently was the wine director at Racines in Reims; Niki, who has a mezcal brand in Oaxaca and runs dinner pop-ups around the world; Sev, wine director of the Ten Bells; and Rapha, who works for the wine importer Vine Trail in the UK. Amazing people!)

We generally picked in the morning, and then spent the afternoon processing grapes, although sometimes we picked all through the day and then had long, long nights in the winery. Lots of midnight dinners, and then 6am wake-up calls next morning.

Fermentation

Chardonnay was pressed directly at the winery, in the pneumatic press (read: a modern, electrical one — I used this press only for my sparkling wine; all of my still wines were made in an old-fashioned, manual basket press). I took a barrel of that juice for my pét-nat.

The Pinot, however, I decided to macerate (leave on the skins) for a short time, to have color in my final wine, and also because the fruit was too beautiful to press directly. For about 48 hours, the Pinot was in a large, wooden open-top fermenter, and each morning and evening I’d climb into it and jump on the grapes to get the juice flowing.

Then it was pressed, and I transported the juice bucket by bucket to another barrel.

And then, my lovely Chardonnay and Pinot fermented away happily in their separate barrel homes, for several weeks.

Over the course of fermentation, I tasted the two wines regularly. They were beautiful from the start and got better and better. Pinot tasted like ripe strawberries and crushed cherries. The Chardonnay had an incredible minerality to it. When I tried doing a 50-50 blend with the wines, that minerality was lost. So, I opted for 60 percent Chardo, 40 percent Pinot in the final blend. 

And before we knew it, the wines were totally dry!

Bottling

You can’t make pét-nat with dry wine. The residual sugar is what causes the wine to re-ferment in bottle. We didn’t have time to bottle mine, so it fermented to dry. But there’s another way: at bottling, we first racked and blended the two wines, then added some Gamay juice that still had a bit of residual sugar left to that blend.

We carefully calculated the correct amount of Gamay to add (it was a couple of liters, ultimately) based on our target baumé, a French system that measures the density of liquids. We added just enough Gamay to get to a specific baumé that we knew would allow the wine to referment once bottled. The wines were bottled, as is done with nearly all pét-nat, under crown caps. 

About 370 bottles were made. Of course, that’s pre-disgorgement. 

A few days after the wines were bottled, I repositioned them upside-down in a large bin, so that all the lees would sink into the bottlenecks.

Disgorgement

The idea of disgorgement is to simply use the pressure created a bottle of sparkling wine to push out the lees. Many people freeze the necks of the bottles, using a chilling machine. We didn’t do that; instead Anton brilliantly drilled holes into a fermenting bin and we simply opened the wines into that, making sure the liquid was touching the caps as we flicked them open with a regular old household beer opener. It worked really well!

When you disgorge, you lose some wine — the lees come out along with liquid. So, each bottle has to be topped up with more wine before it is resealed, in this case with a crown cap. 

All of this was truly a massive job. Each bottle had to be wiped down carefully with a cloth after it was disgorged. We went though about twenty tea towels doing this!

In the end, though, the wines are cleaner and they won’t explode when opened.

And voilà, that’s pretty much it! I loved the process; I learned so much about the chemistry and physics of fermentation, and all sorts of practical things related to the nature of liquids and alcohol.

I made some other wines, as well — all reds — but none of them compared to the pét-nat in terms of labor and time.

But I hope all this doesn’t deter you from fully enjoying pét-nats! They are meant to be fun and delicious. Now that you know how much work goes into them, you may even enjoy them more.

Any questions or feedback? Leave ’em in the comments.

xxRachel

 

Weekly Apéro Hour: Luxuriating in Sangiovese and Rachel Cusk’s World of Dialogue

Sometimes, I make a list in my head of the living people whom I’d give anything to have dinner with. Novelist Rachel Cusk is at the top of that list. She is a writer who has reinvented the genre of the novel, by giving it new form, seemingly without effort.

Reading Cusk’s critically acclaimed trilogy, of which I’m now on the last segment, feels simultaneously like you have become witness to an act of genius, and like there’s nothing simpler, more comforting, more enjoyable, than this simple book in your hands. This tension between ingenuity of form and bare bones writing is what I love about Cusk’s work. 

The plot of each of these books revolves around a narrator who is doing not much more than living her life, as a writer — it’s very hard to write a book about writing that isn’t super annoying, but she has mastered this — while having conversations with people who are deeply entrenched in the throes of emotional maelstroms. To quote critic Dwight Garner, these dialogues “branch out like broccoli florets.”

Kudos is the latest in Cusk’s series, and I treated myself to it after finally launching the Kickstarter for my book Nomad — which is off to a good start! Please check it out if you haven’t yet. If you know me, whether from following me on social media or IRL, you’re surely aware that I’ve long wanted to write a book. Ultimately, I have plans to write something more complex than Nomad, which is more like a long essay than a full book, but I see this attempt as a crucial step in breaking through the obstacles I feel are between me and that future book.

If you are thinking about going out to grab Kudos, you definitely can jump right into it, although it will probably make you want to go back and start the trilogy from scratch. I highly recommend it — the whole series is a meditation on the contemporary world and how it makes us feel at an individual level, with close examinations of relationships, both romantic and familial, and deep studies of femininity and masculinity and artistic creativity.

I also treated myself this week to a very special wine, a beautiful red from Pacina, an organic estate in Tuscany that consists of grapevines, olive trees, grain and vegetable farming, and a monastery dating back to 900 A.D. Having spent the week bottling Sangiovese (including my own, for my forthcoming label, Persephone Wines), I was ready to sit back and drink a fine example.

You’ll note that this is a wine from 2013. In the world of natural wines, it’s not very common to be able to enjoy a wine that has undergone extensive ageing like this. Many natural wines are made in a “fresher” style, meant to be light and low in alcohol, and there’s also the unfortunate truth that quite a few natural winemakers who would prefer to age their wines for longer simply can’t afford to do so, as anything held in stock represents potential immediate cash income.

Pacina makes this wine, comprised of nearly all Sangiovese, with a bit of the local blending grape Canaiolo/Cilliegiolo mixed in (two local red varieties traditionally used for blending with Sangio), with extreme care and respect for Tuscan tradition. The grapes are first macerated for six weeks in concrete, and then fermentation continues also in concrete for six months. Then there’s ageing in old oak barrels of different sizes, followed by one year of resting and integrating in bottle. No sulfites (or anything else) were added.

The result is an extraordinarily elegant wine that delivers the satisfaction of experiencing a vintage several years later. Although the wine is somewhat high in alcohol (14% — normal for a wine of the sunny Tuscan hills), this is only one component of its profile, as the ageing helps the alcohol to integrate with the other flavors. On the very aromatic nose, I found ripe cherry and pickled plums. The palate had a totally smooth texture, featuring musky sandalwood and charred rhubarb. The wine was such a treat to drink, and despite its complexity and meditative aspects went down very quickly — it wasn’t weighted down in any way. A serious red wine doesn’t have to be overly tannic and massively heavy on the palate, if the maker is artful enough. Surely, the Pacina wines are aided by the fact that Giovanna, who along with her husband Stefano run the estate and the winemaking cellar, is the third generation to do so — the knowledge must have been passed down to her from previous members of her family, and so she can rely on the older ways to some extent.

Have a great start to your week, everyone! Thanks for reading this edition of #apérohourweekly and feel free to subscribe to the blog via the homepage if you want to receive this in your inbox each week. Around mid-August I’ll be headed to Europe, to visit vineyards in Slovenia and Spain, and check out the wine scene in Berlin and London, and I’ll be continuing to write as a I travel — it would be great to have you along with me. (Of course, I also blog as I go on my persona Instagram, so hop over there if you don’t already follow.)

cheers! xxRachel