How To Become A “Natural Wine Journalist”

There are certain clichés about freelance journalism: hours spent staring at a laptop screen while nursing a coffee in a café; writing at home in your pajamas; chasing down paychecks from ambivalent editors at large publications that should have no problem issuing payments. There are also clichés about wine writing: boxes of wine samples arriving to your door (usually unsolicited); long weekday lunches involving endless schmoozing and multiple glasses of wine; wild journeys through European vineyards, getting lost a dozen times and eating your weight in cheese while touring damp, cold cellars that have been used for generations.

They’re all true, actually. But how to get there, is the question you might be asking. And while the lifestyle itself does leave much to be desired (such as reliable income), if it’s really what you are after, there are certain steps to follow.

I often get emails from writers wondering how to become a professional freelance journalist, and I do my best to answer them because I remember when I was once sending those emails, totally clueless on how to follow my dreams. What I think is important to know is that: (a) journalism is a trade that can be learned, (b) writing is a skill, and (c) reporting involves certain “nuts and bolts” without which you’ll never sell or produce a professional story. Talent is vital, but it’s useless without some knowledge of how to do journalism properly.

 

So, I thought I’d answer some of the most recent questions I received from a hopeful natural wine journalist, here in a blog post, for anyone to find. Although the focus here is specifically on natural wine journalism, since of course I publish a magazine on that topic, I think a lot of these tips can be applied to freelance food, arts, and culture writing as well.

Also, in general I do recommend blogging just for fun and practice. It won’t earn you money, but it will earn you a following and it’s a great way to stay busy in between assignments. Whenever I couldn’t sell a pitch, I just wrote about it in this section of my blog. At least the work is being read instead of sitting in my notebook.

 

What kinds of pitches do editors tend to avoid from new writers?

First of all, it’s vital that you learn the art of the pitch.

A pitch should contain several elements:

  • an intro (2-3 sentences) stating who you are, where you’ve been writing, and why you’re pitching this publication in particular – as if you were introducing yourself to this editor at a party
  • a working title for each one of your pitches (you can offer more than one at once)
  • a sexy lede (Google “lede” if you don’t know what that is)
  • the Ws (Who/What/Where/When/Why), in other words “what is this story about, why does it matter, and why now?)
  • justification for you and nobody else writing this story
  • justification for this publication and nobody else publishing this story

You can also include some info regarding how long the story might be, what work you’ve done so far (interviewed a subject already, or researched the topic, or in this case, tasted the wines with the producer or importer), and what’s left to be done, and how you plan to do that reporting (in-person, phone, email, etc).

Regarding new writers, for most editors it’s asking a lot if you’ve never worked together and you want to land a big, full-length print feature. If the magazine has a website, you might start with a web piece before venturing something in print. With Pipette, an interview or short essay or bar review might be a nice starting point. However, if you are widely published on the topic then you an aim higher.

 

What’s it like writing for X publication?

I won’t answer publicly what it’s like working for that specific publication, but I do commend this practice! In other words, if you’re interested in pitching a publication, I recommend you ask writers whose bylines appear there for insight. Ask them if they are comfortable disclosing information about the pitching, editing, and payment processes. Learn as much as you can, so you aren’t totally naïve when you do pitch and hopefully then begin an assignment.

 

 

What should a pitch for a natural wine story look like?

You’ve got the elements of a solid pitch above. Regarding natural wine, something to keep in mind is that there’s a lot of great natural wine out there these days, and new stuff all the time. You need to justify the story you’re choosing to pitch. Why is this producer deserving of a story? Have they been single-handedly rejuvenating a region through their fabulous vineyard work? Is their personal story super inspiring? Are they part of some amazing community that tells a story beyond just winemaking? It can also be a personal reason—did this winemaker change your life, or have you been transformed by their Pinot?

Access is also important. If you live in New York and you’re pitching a profile of a winemaker in Georgia, well, the obvious question is: how are you going to write this? If the winemaker is coming through New York for RAW Wine Fair, there’s your chance! Mention that in the pitch. Some publications do have small travel budgets, but it’s unlikely that you’ll get flown across the world.

Also keep in mind, if this producer’s wines are only available within a fifty-mile radius of their winery, well, it’s going to be hard to sell that story to anything except a hyper-local publication. Nobody is that interested in reading about a wine they will never taste.

Also, if the wines aren’t good, or you don’t personally care for them, why would you pitch that?

You also may need to narrow the focus of the pitch in terms of depth and approach. Think about your potential readers: are they people who drink and love natural wine already? Or are you targeting the “natural wine curious”? Also, think about your own position. Have you visited Jean-Francois Ganevat three times over the course of years? If so, pitch a really in-depth profile for people who already love his wines. Are you scheduled to have your very first visit ever with him, and you only discovered his wines a year ago? Then understand that you’ll be just barely scratching the surface of someone totally iconic. Pitch it as a short, light profile, or even an interview, or maybe just focus on one aspect of the visit, such as his vineyard work or a recent wine vintage.

The pitch will vary as well depending on the publication. A pitch about natural wine for Vogue, for example, will need to be broad and explanatory, whereas for Pipette, you’re generally talking to people who know the deal.

When I was starting out in journalism, I took a few workshops and also sat in on a class in NYU Journalism School, where I was considering applying. I learned in those contexts about the “lede,” the “nut graf,” and the “body” of an article. Honestly, you can’t do journalism without having some grasp of those elements. Find a workshop.

I also highly recommend trying a workshop in creative nonfiction so you can improve your ability to write captivating prose. Dialogue, for example, is something a lot of writers struggle with. There’s an art to it, and it can be learned.

 

What reading do you suggest for someone who wants to learn more about the science and specifics of wines?

I recommend tasting wines that call to you intuitively, or which you’ve heard a lot about, and looking them up online and finding every resource you can (usually, importer websites and blogs) and learning about them that way.

I also recommend checking out general wine books by Jancis Robinson and Jon Bonné, and Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron’s natural wine guidebooks. And of course, Pipette.

 

What is the state of natural wine coverage right now?

There isn’t too much covering natural wine from a serious journalistic perspective, in English, other than Pipette (which is why I started the mag). The print magazine Glou Glou is pretty great. There’s a lot of stuff on Instagram but most of it just skims the surface. Meanwhile, mainstream publications love to treat natural wine as a fashion trend, publishing listicle after listicle—it’s not a terrible thing, as those articles do often mention realities about natural wine, and provide suggestions for bottles to try. But they won’t tell you anything beyond the most basic information about natural wine, and they are quite repetitive as well.

 

How can journalists tell stories about the natural wine movement while tapping into greater themes—such as politics, tradition, rebellion, generational divides, capitalism, etc?

THANK YOU for this question. My original love for wine, and wine writing, occurred because I saw wine (and especially natural wine) as a lens to all these topics. When I wrote about Francois Saint-Lo, for example, in Pipette Issue 3, I tried to emphasize the social experiment that’s happening around his winery, just as much as the winemaking itself.

Winemakers are often really passionate about something totally other than wine, if you prod—so they might have studied film or art, or perhaps they have an interesting hobby, or they may grow something other than wine—see the feature on Gabrio and Giotto Bini in Pipette Issue 1, where the writer beautifully covered the family’s caper harvest on Pantelleria while also talking about their wines.

In journalism this is sometimes called “crossover” journalism—when you interview a painter, for example, but you focus on her fabulous home garden, and use that as a framework for talking about her artwork; or you do a profile on a filmmaker at his favorite restaurant, and his passion for great cooking comes through in the piece, showing him as a more complete human.

 

I actually have a story idea that I would like to workshop, but I’m still working on it…

Just send over what you have, using the guidelines above to the best of your ability! Maybe it won’t be perfect—in which case, the editor will either outright reject it or offer some tips for improvement. I have consistently noticed that nearly all of the pitches I successfully landed happened when I sent a full, thought-out pitch via email, and the editor wrote back with a polite “no” and an explanation, and I fired back quickly a fresh idea in just a few sentences, sparking a conversation that led to an assignment.

Don’t be afraid to just fire off a few ideas; a pitch doesn’t need to be a PhD dissertation, it just needs to contain enough solid elements that an editor can visualize it some day (perhaps with some help) becoming a publishable final piece.

LASTLY, this should not need to be stated, but apparently it does: Do not send pitches via DM or Facebook. Email them.

We accept pitches for Pipette via pipettemagazine@gmail.com. Here are our submissions guidelines. Although if you’ve read what’s above, that should be enough guidance!

And remember, editors are busy — if your pitch doesn’t get a reply in 2-3 weeks, follow-up. But don’t follow up the next day. If they say no, ask for feedback, but if you don’t get any, it’s not personal — you need to do your own work to figure out how to improve. And please, never pitch a publication you haven’t read!

Let me know if you have more questions I haven’t addressed and I’ll do my best to answer them : )

All photos here are by the Adelaide, Australia based photographer Lewis Potter and should not be used without permission.

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.

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

 

Introducing Pipette Magazine (Take Deux)

Today, I am writing with some bittersweet news. Essentially, Terre Magazine will be no more in the coming weeks.

I write this with some level of sadness. Over the past year and a half, I saw that Terre was really exciting to people, that this magazine added some joy and wholesome intellectualism in their lives. Over the course of two issues, I have had the pleasure of working with authors and photographers in truly rewarding ways, seeing a vague idea develop substance and then become a solid draft — and finally, something we could be proud to publish in print.
But the good news is: I won’t be giving up. I’m starting a new magazine.
The new magazine will be called Pipette. A “pipette,” you may know, also called a “wine thief,” is a glass siphon used to draw tastes of wine from barrels. I am naming the new magazine Pipette in honor of a very special experience I had recently while visiting Slovakia. The winemaker Zsolt Suto of Strekov 1075 brought us to visit a friend of his, a Hungarian man making natural wine in a beautiful old cellar, with no commercial intent, at all–he bottles the wine for his own consumption, only.
This winemaker, Gabor, led the tasting using the most lovely pipette I had ever seen. He also had us tasting out of 100-year-old wine glasses! I remarked on how beautiful the pipette was — apparently it’s common in the region but I had never seen the style before. Gabor, noticing how enamored I was, ended up cleaning it carefully and giving it to us as a gift. It was very touching and symbolic of the non-commercial nature of what he does as a natural winemaker. The pipette unfortunately broke during a dash through the Vienna airport — but that generosity will remain in my memory forever.
And that’s what is important. Natural wine to me is about generosity. Writing, even, is about generosity. My financial benefit from writing is basically nothing. My personal benefit, however, is massive, when I hear from readers that something I’ve written has touched them or shown them a fresh perspective. And the same return is involved in editing, and working with talented creatives, to make a unique print product that brings us away from the constant noise of social media and fake news.
That’s all I ever wanted to do by founding a print magazine about natural wines: add beauty and thoughtful discourse to the world, in a time when there’s so much consumerist bullshit and greed. So, I’ll be doing that with Pipette. The magazine will, as with the previous iteration, be print-only, and it will still have minimalistic design with great photos and artwork, and hopefully still enjoy wide distribution around the world. I am going to have to re-do a lot of work, from scratch. It’s hard, because I was already so strapped for time, editing Terre while building its network, also making wine and doing assignments for magazines. But I’ll write emails in my sleep to make it happen.
I will have more news soon; I know that many of you subscribed and are wondering what will happen to your subscriptions. For now, if you could please follow the new magazine on Instagram so I can re-build a following, it would get me off to a great start. And please spread the word!
Thank you for your support!
xxRachel

The First Barrels

Never did I think, even when I first got into wine writing — first stepped into an expansive vineyard with a notebook and pen and wondered how the plants I saw, budding in late spring, would eventually translate to the lovely drink in my glass — even in moments as beautiful as those, never did I think: I’ll make wine one day.

How could I, a writer, possibly dream to make wine? Friends I knew who had made wine had worked three, five, eight vintages around the world. I’ve worked harvest for two weeks in France, and done some picking here-and-there in Burgundy and Napa Valley.

But here I am, at the end of vintage (Aussies say “vintage,” versus harvest, and my English is quickly becoming Aussie-fied, you know, mate?) in the Basket Range of South Australia, with several barrels of wine tucked away in a shed, and one sparkling wine already in bottle. We just opened one the other day, and when the bubbles rose up in foam, I was kind of in shock. I made the wine, but the wine made itself sparkling. Isn’t that incredible? I know, I know — it’s all fairly straightforward, fermentation creating carbon dioxide as the yeasts consume sugar. Winemaking 101. But I was terrible at chemistry and physics and all that in high school and university. And yet, I can still make them work to my favor. I made bubbles?!?!? It’s truly awesome.

It’s funny, when you visit winemakers as a journalist, you ask certain questions that you think might help you communicate something, to future readers, about the wine: When did you start picking? Did you de-stem? Tank or barrel? But it’s impossible to really understand the reasons behind the answers to these questions, I think, unless you’ve made wine.

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Making my own wines was a meditation on the meaning of individualism, and of the concept of work itself. Nearly all of what we did, we did as a vintage team — up at dawn to get to the vineyards, all day picking and sorting, then processing the grapes. In the vineyard, we worked alongside a picking crew mostly from Laos and Thailand. Weeks after vintage has ended, I still dream about the incredible food they brought — every day, different dishes — for “smoko,” the Aussie word for the mid-day break.

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But when it came to making my own wines, it was all up to me. Each of my red wines were macerated in open-top, wooden fermenters that I climbed into and jumped on once each day for about two or three days; then, I did punchdowns (“plunging” in Aus) by hand, morning and night, to keep the cap wet. That was the first choice: whole cluster, non-carbonic fermentation. I liked this approach because I could always see and taste the grapes and evaluate whether they were ready to press.

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Next decision: when to press? With the Gamay, I wanted a light and pretty lunch wine, so five days of maceration was plenty. Cabernet Franc was about the same. Right away, I saw how different it was to press Cab Franc than Gamay. The juicy Gamay berries had been a breeze, oozing juice nonstop, whereas Cab Franc’s thicker skins were tougher to crack.

The press itself was also a choice. I opted not to use the modern pneumatic press, and rather chose to use an old-fashioned, small basket press that a friend of ours bought new from Italy. With the basket press, I didn’t require any forklift, no electricity was used, and I could literally do everything all by myself . . . OK, I did need help getting the free run juice out of the barrels, sometimes — we don’t have pumps at the Lucy Margaux winery, instead using gravity and our lungs to transfer wine via hoses, which is super super hard, the most difficult part of winemaking for me. Gravity is something you have to learn to trust and befriend, I think. It’s the same way in yoga, which I’ve practiced for thirteen years — if you feel fear, you’re not working with gravity, you’re fighting against it. My goal is to become at one with gravity — that’s when I’ll feel like a real winemaker. And a yogi, I guess . . .

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I loved the basket press because it was, by nature, a slow process. With each press, I loaded the grapes in bucket by bucket or shovel by shovel, after siphoning the free run into a barrel. This gave me time to think. With the Cabernet Franc and the Sangiovese, it occurred to me that the juice already tasted quite stemmy, from the whole-cluster fermentation. So, I took a pause to hand-destem about 50 percent of the fruit, standing there, beside the press. Why not? There was no rush — the point was to make something delicious that honored the beautiful, organic fruit the local growers had spent much time caring for.

I found the basket press empowering because, now, when I say that I made these wines, it really means that I made them. Nothing was added or taken away, and nothing will be. There’s no need; nothing has the scent of volatile acidity, and the barrels were cleaned well with hot water before being filled.

I don’t claim to be one of the greats just because I’ve made wine one time, thanks to the space provided me by someone very generous. But it was a beautiful experience doing it truly on my own terms, and I’m excited to see how the barrels look in a few months, how they’ll become in bottle, and how they’ll taste when they hopefully make their way around Australia and perhaps the world — who knows! I made the wine to share and be drunk. My hope is they will bring pleasure and transmit the energy of this amazing vintage in Australia — a hot, fast, intense, but also, really peaceful one overall, and a season of abundance, of more grapes than anybody expected, tons of people around from all over the world, and plenty of good wine and food on our communal table.

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Also, editing Terre Issue 2 while doing all of this has been both impossible and amazing. There were days when I’d be up at 5am to go pick, and then find myself editing three articles in the afternoon before going into the winery to help process grapes or clean up. Obviously, I would have preferred to be getting more sleep! But at the same time, there were moments when I’d be reading someone’s work and it struck me as really powerful, more than any other time I’d read or written about wine, because I was literally elbow-deep in the stuff right then. 

For example, in California vigneronne Martha Stoumen‘s interview in Issue 2, she talks about joy and patience in winemaking. She tells Miguel de Leon, “I am a firm believer that you can experience more joy in what you’re consuming when the person making it was joyful in the act of making it. The first time I made wine, I was like a little kid; I got to feel things and feel textures. When I work outside, I’m noticing how the sun hits things, how the smells hit me.”

This quote. How much it speaks to me. I am so happy to have her interview in the coming issue (out next month!). I’ve only met Martha once and tasted a few of her wines and I can say that she is definitely singular and has a message worth hearing.

And then there’s the memoir about harvest at Arianna Occhipinti‘s, by Ashley Ragovin. After ten years of admiring Arianna’s wines, having first been transfixed by them while working as a somm in a fancy Italian restaurant, Ashley finally went to Sicily for harvest in Vittoria. The experience was far beyond what she’d anticipated, and confirmed that wine heroes, or just heroes in general, are a real thing worth having. The connections we imagine between winemakers and ourselves aren’t false.

So much more is in Issue 2. I hope you’ll pre-order a copy soon (or grab one at a nearby stockist, or subscribe). And one day, in the not-too-distant future, you may even be reading Issue 3 while sipping on a glass of wine made by yours truly.

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Terre Issue 2 Pre-Sales Are On!

Only a year ago, Terre Magazine was just a glimmer of an idea.

And now, we’re nearly finished editing Issue 2, and moving onto the design phase! Please consider pre-ordering your copy; even if there’s a stockist near you, pre-ordering helps us finance production and pay our writers, artists, and photographers around the world, and every dollar counts. Also, you will get your magazine directly from the printer (I know some of you had to wait a few weeks last time — won’t happen again) if you pre-order.

We’ve been dropping some hints about Issue 2 in our newsletter, and on Instagram. Of course, we want to keep some of it a surprise. We’re really happy that the issue will not only feature several rising star winemakers and a few who are already quite well known, but also interviews with wine bar owners around the world, a visual essay from an Italian design collective, features on coffee/tea/spirits, and even a guide to buying cannabis. It’s a magazine for people who love natural, artisanal wine, but so much more.

Check out the options at this link. You may want to subscribe for the whole year, so as to also receive Issue 3, which comes out in November. 

We’re blown away by the incredible talent that’s come to us for Terre Issue 2. It’s really an honor to be publishing such great work. The magazine comes out in May and we’ll be hosting some events in Europe and New York. Stay tuned!Thank you — sorry to be brief, but it’s harvest here in Australia and I’ve got to get back to hand-plunging the Merlot . . .