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.

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!

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.

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

 

Weekly Apéro Hour: Little Things, Ploussard or Poulsard or Just Wonderful Wine, Motherhood (The Book)

Welcome to your weekly apéro hour!

After excursions to Spain and Serbia in the last edition of #apérohourweekly, we return to my regular, ongoing consumption of French and Aussie wines! (This is a short one, also, because editing Pipette and bottling spring releases is pretty demanding on time and energy, as you can probably imagine.)

FRENCH DRINKING. Fill in the blank: discovering a good bottle of Poulsard you’ve never had before is: ________________.

(Options include: “like finding a new favorite band” // “better than sex” // “almost as exciting as discovering a good bottle of Trousseau you’ve never had before” // your unique answer.)

Over the weekend, I met a new friend in the form of Domaine de la Borde’s Ploussard (aka Poulsard, the more general name). Poulsard, for the uninitiated, is a light red Jura grape (Eastern FrancE) found mostly around the Pupillin area, and delivers heavenly, aromatic, wine with note of dark cherries or crushed roses).

Domaine de la Borde, I learned from online research, is helmed by a young vigneron who is one of the relative newcomers to the Jura, named Julien Mareschal. As of now, Julien has about 5 hectares of vines, many at high elevation, and in conversion to organic or biodynamic. All of his wines are single-vineyard products. This cuvée, “Brume des Chambines,” (2015) is from a plot of 30-year-old vines on red clay soil, is aged 10 months in tank, and is currently the only (or one of the only) wines that is made completely without added sulfites. It was incredibly light and ethereal, with hints of curry spice and cumin, and an overall savory character. The hue was almost translucent like a precious gem. There was a hint of tart raspberry on the finish.

AUSSIE DRINKING: This yummy wine was made not far from where I am writing, in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, by a guy named James Madden whose first vintage with his own label, “Little Things,” was just in 2017 (450 cases total). This wine is called “More Than White,” which as you may suspect indicates the use of skin contact to extract more flavor from the grapes.

I’ve had the pleasure of sipping on wines from Little Things before — Pinot and Syrah, of late, both really pure and showing lots of wonderful fruit notes — but this was my first time trying the “More Than White,” made from Sauvignon Blanc, destemmed and fermented on the skins for a few weeks, and zero sulfites added.

And this wine was just a pure delicious bomb: it explodes in your mouth with white peaches and yellow grapefruits, as well as happy, broad acidity that swishes around on the tongue. The grapes were picked early so the alcohol is low (10%), James told me over e-mail (he’s out of town, otherwise I would’ve probably just gone over there!) — and he also informed me that the light rosy hue of the wine comes not from the addition of some red grapes, as I guessed, but from ageing in old red wine barrels! “A case of limited funds/resources starting out,” he says.

Note that if you’re outside Australia, it might be just a bit of a wait before you see “Little Things” abroad, as James is slowly scaling up production. Meanwhile, those of us Down Under will be lucky to enjoy these sumptuous and pretty wines.


READING. It took me a while to process this book, Motherhood, the latest autofictional novel from Toronto-based writer Sheila Heti, whose earlier book How Should A Person Be? was life-changing for me and one of the few things I dragged across the world with me to Australia.

As you can discern from the title, this is a book about motherhood — specifically, it’s about the decision that women make consciously, at a certain point in their lives, as to whether they want to become a mother. Heti constructs a character not unlike herself in real life — approaching 40 years old, deeply focused on her “art” (in this case writing), also deeply in love with a man, and desperately unsure of whether to have a child or not.

The device that Heti employs to move the book along is a strange thing: she adopts a technique from followers of the I Ching, who flip three coins, six times, to get a “yes or no” answer to any question. At first, I liked this, and even found it very humorous in instances where it gets out of hand (the coins lead the narrator to do all sorts of things, like hiding a knife as a response to some weird symbolism in a dream) and then I soon found it annoying, and before long I found the entire book annoying and disappointing because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere except despair, indecision, and self-loathing. I found myself struggling to enjoy reading the book, and also sort of judging the narrator — just have a baby already, won’t you! It’s clearly what you want! Or at least it’s what I, as a reader, want. 

Then I noticed my feelings and realized that I wasn’t really listening to how much the narrator was struggling, and I wasn’t quite getting how difficult it would’ve been for Heti to write this book. It’s a book that grapples deeply with all the complexities of femininity, womanhood, our bodies, ageing, and choosing a creative life. Parts of it, as well, follow the arc that a woman’s body goes though during the menstrual cycle. Maybe my own discomfort was partly a reflection of how much I also live these questions, and of course that same cycle, though in different ways to Heti. Her point, of course, is that each woman is on her own journey, and I was judging her just as the narrator feels judged by women who have babies while she does not.

In the end, I feel that this is a book very much worth reading, although it does miss out on some of the sense of wonder and adventurousness that I found in Heti’s earlier book. Anyway, motherhood isn’t an easy role or an easy topic, so it surely deserves a difficult book.

It’s time to head back down to the winery for more bottling! More soon, friends.

xRachel

Weekly Apéro Hour: A Tale Of Two Syrahs

Here’s your weekly apéro hour!

DRINKING: This week a friend brought over a wine from the Northern Rhone cru Cornas, where 100 percent Syrah wine is made atop a great granite hill with vineyards as much as 400 meters above sea level. This particular bottle is one I’ve enjoyed before, and loved, from Franck Balthazar, who aside from having a fabulously appropriate last name is known for making extremely elegant Cornas wine, including this completely sans soufre cuvée. It is luscious yet bright, full of black olive notes and a bit of sandlewood or maybe campfire in the tannins. It’s a comforting wine, perfect for these chilly Aussie evenings. This bottle was from the 2014 vintage and it was totally great, but could have used more time.

It was funny, when I was drinking it, how much it reminded me of another wine I’ve drunk recently: the 2016 “Tommy Ruff” Shiraz/Mourvèdre (50/50) cuvée from Tom Shobbrook in the Barossa Valley (who is featured in Issue 2 of Terre Magazine!).

OK, it’s not 100 percent Syrah (if you didn’t know, “Shiraz” is New World for Syrah) — but the Syrah definitely dominates the Mourvèdre in the Tommy Ruff wine, with plenty of olive and cherry pit and leather notes underpinned by a hint of spice. But I was laughing because the wines are both 13 percent in alcohol, both are very soul-warming and somewhat on the fuller-bodied side, yet lightened by acidity from — in the French case, I’d guess, cool nights — and in the Barossa case, I’d guess,  early picking. And both are such beautiful examples of what can be done with Syrah, a grape that can easily tend toward flabbiness and high alcohol.

Where the Tommy Ruff wine comes from, the Shobbrook family vineyard in the Barossa, couldn’t be more different to the steep slopes of the Rhône. And yet, these wines had a similar effect on me. You have to wonder, sometimes, how terroir can trespass entire countries, even continents. Intelligent winemaking can become a bridge across long distances. And for me, this experience of two Syrahs, from two terroirs, was a sort of glimpse into my own fragmented sense of self, at the moment — one foot in Australia, one foot in France, and yet always pulled mentally back to the States, where my family is and where it’s one political disaster after another.

Speaking of that . . .

CONTEMPLATING. Ever since the current U.S. President (I won’t write his name) came into power, there’s been a consistently repeated sequence:

Step 1: President does something egregious, shameful, threatening to humankind

Step 2: Humankind responds by blasting feelings and political statements all over social media

Step 3: Various forms of fundraising and marching occur across the U.S.

And then the aftermath of this is usually someone in the White House gets fired and replaced, or maybe things get passed to the Federal or Supreme Court. Which, now, is definitely going to swing in the President’s favor, anyway. Ughhhhh. How did adults actually let this all happen?

I was in Sydney when the news came out about the detained children at the U.S. border, some as young as 9 months old, guilty of no crime other than trying to make better lives for themselves against all the odds. I couldn’t sleep all night after reading the articles about how these children were being treated. And in no time, it was all over social media — people were posting photos of children crying, and call-to-actions to donate to Raices Texas or the ACLU. And I immediately felt the impulse to do the same. But then something stopped me.

This painting, by Ad Reinhardt (“Abstract Painting,” 1960-66), came to mind. I saw it on display in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York about six months ago, and it recalled the way many people, including me, took to simply posting black squares on Instagram to express our feelings of revolt at the political situation. You can interpret it any way you want, obviously, but consider the decade it was painted in, and that Reinhardt was a civil rights movement supporter and a vocal opponent to the U.S. war in Vietnam.

And reflecting on this work of art, I worried, if we rely on social media as an outlet for feelings about injustice, is that a temporary fix for a much bigger problem? I also thought about my life over the past year: living in France, then Australia, two countries that also have seriously questionable policies in regard to migrants. It’s not just a U.S. problem, it’s a global problem. People are being deliberated excluded from the supposedly all-encompassing notion of human rights.

The sum of all this reflection, for me: I’d like to be constantly doing something to support justice, rather than simply reacting every time there’s a severe crisis. It’s been incredible to see all the money people raised to support work at the U.S.-Mexico border. I hope I can find a substantial way to contribute, as well. Guilt and anger are not productive emotions; I’d rather be constructive rather than in despair.

That said: if anyone knows of an organization who works with refugees, anywhere on the planet, who is particularly in need, I have an upcoming project and I’d like to donate some of its revenue to this cause. Thanks for any tips you can share!

READING: I’ve dug into Sheila Heti’s latest book, Motherhood, pictured above with the wines. Wow. I really want to tell you more about it, but I’m going to wait until I’m a little further in.

MORE READING AND DRINKING: wild fermented, barrel aged aleI mean, I guess that’s basically what this blog is about? So, Wildflower Beer is a new project based in Sydney, Australia, where brewer Topher Boehm has translated his love for Australian flora — the reason he, being a Texas native, decided to live in Australia is that he fell in love with the stunning native flowers — into beermaking. I’ve been enjoying his this weekend alongside an indie mag about beermaking, called Hops & Barley, from the UK. the magazine has a really cool feature about brewers with winemaking backgrounds, which looks at other ways that wine and beer intersect — namely, with the use of wine barrels for ageing beers. Another cool indie mag discovery!

I’m looking forward to collaborating with Topher on an article for Pipette Magazine, which is set to come out in October. I’ll be working on that nonstop over the next few weeks. I have to say, living out here in the hills, surrounded by clean, fresh air and friendly people who make amazing wines, is not a terrible setting to be in for editing and writing. Every day I take the dogs for a walk, and I marvel at the simple beauty of a pinecone covered in dew, with water droplets on the edges of the pines, sparkling in the morning sunlight.

To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In the woods is eternal youth.”

TRAVELING: Oh my gosh, Tasmania was beautiful! (Proof above!!) I went there for a wine tasting called Bottletops, hosted by Franklin Bar & Restaurant, but I was also able to get out into the wilderness a bit, foraging for incredibly delicious, meaty native oysters in the cold waters on the south end of the island, walking in the woods, picnicking by the blue lake.

I’ve posted some highlights from the wine tasting on Instagram already, and I’ll share a few more in coming weeks. In the meantime, I wanted to mention something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: hospitality to travelers.

I used to run an AirBnb in New York. We made special effort to provide a cozy space, with nice art on the walls, chocolates on the bed, and sometimes even a vase fresh flowers in the guest bedroom. These days, I use AirBnb frequently, as a guest — and too often, the apartments are completely soulless, designed purely to provide basic needs for a visitor. I always have trouble sleeping in these spaces!

So I really appreciated staying in the cutest AirBnb ever in Tasmania’s main city, Hobart — the host had installed all sorts of funny vintage knick-knacks giving it character, and there were lovely drawings on the wall, a really nice French press, and a shelf full of secondhand books. I spent an hour diving into this amazing publication Journal of a Novel, from John Steinbeck, who wrote and kept letters to his editor while he was working on the massive tome East of Eden. I loved reading about Steinbeck’s struggles to produce the book he’d go down in history for — from the day-to-day, like managing to do laundry, to the ongoing and infuriating creative challenges, the sense of disappointment when the writing wasn’t going well, all the things that we forget about or aren’t aware of when we read the finished work.

To all the hosts out there who put thought and time into providing welcoming spaces: hats off to you. I felt like the Steinbeck book appeared in my life for a reason, as I am working on a small fun little book manuscript. Steinbeck’s letters were a reminder that nobody is exempt from the ongoing challenges to writing — but we have to do it anyway! While my book is certainly no 600-page modern classic, it is still taxing to put something together and have the confidence to share it with the world.

I’ll be able to announce that project very soon!

And for those of you eager to learn more about the forthcoming Pipette Issue 1, consider signing up for the occasional newsletter. It’s the first place where announcements come out about pre-sales, events, and discount codes for purchasing magazines and for tickets to wine tastings around the world. The link is here.

Have a lovely finish to your weekend! xxR

P.S. If you enjoyed this week’s apéro hour, take a peek on the right side where you can sign up to receive this blog directly in your inbox (if you’re on your phone, you have to go back to the blog’s home page, rachelsigner.com, to find the sign-up).

Apéro Hour | Weekly Highlights: Remembering Georgia; Remembering Bourdain; Retasting Aussie “Favourites”

Welcome to your weekly apéro hour! 

Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public—and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans—as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.

-Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

 

DRINKING. Just over a year ago, I was invited on a trip to the Republic of Georgia. That trip changed my life, completely; it exposed me to a vibrant culture of wine and food, and I met some people who, even if I haven’t seen them since, I consider close friends. Eight days driving around on a bus, meeting winemaking families, is a great way to bond! I also met my partner on that trip, so that was one of the obvious highlights.

At the Zero Compromise tasting in Tbilisi, all of us were impressed by tasting wines made by Mariam Iosebidze, from a light red grape called Tavkveri that’s basically the Georgian equivalent of Poulsard. Mariam makes her wine in an uncle’s mariani (cellar) and there is very little of it, so I’m thrilled that it makes its way to Australia and I had a chance to drink the 2016 the other day, over a light lunch. The wine was made with only a brief skin contact — less than three days, which is not much for a red — and fermented for one month total in qvevri. The short maceration does it well, I think — it’s got plenty of flavor but is light and driven by acidity — it tastes like crushed roses and salted cherries, with hints of curry and salami. It’s got no sulfites added, nothing but grapes in here. And it’s definitely one of those “funky” natural wines, if you’re looking for that (it has some VA — which I don’t mind, at all!)

If you want to read more about Georgian wine, here’s the piece I wrote for MUNCHIES based on that trip!

MOURNING. When I read Kitchen Confidential, it was long after its publication in 2000. I’d come late in life to the world of food writing, and discovering Bourdain’s tell-all memoir was a revelation: it was brave and brash, hiding nothing about restaurant life and his own tumultuous experience as a cook. In this age of over-saccharine social media performativism, I am sure all of us appreciate the instances where someone is raw, unguarded, and truthful. Especially when it comes to restaurants, which so many of us experience as the end-user only.

Bourdain’s legacy is powerful, and wide-reaching. It was incredible to watch the outpouring of emotion on social media and in the news, from people whose lives he had touched deeply, whether they’d had a chance to meet him, or not. They shared stories of how he’d motivated them to go to cooking school, or validated their sense of pride in Filipino cooking. Bourdain showed appreciation for simple, humble dishes at mom-and-pop restaurants around the world, and shunned fancy establishments. He ate bún cha with President Obama in Hanoi. He made his career after halfheartedly sending an exposé of restaurants to the New Yorker, on the advice of his mother (watch the video where he tells that story here).

The California-based writer John Birdsall wrote on Twitter: “After a day of being able to get nothing done and a night trying to resist sinking into panic, I figured out Bourdain’s legacy: to use whatever influence you have to champion anyone with an authentic voice, even if it’s not fully formed.”

In the wake of Bourdain’s death, I was touched by brief and touching eulogies written by the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner, and Kat Kinsman for Food and Wine. Bourdain’s suicide also triggered an eruptive discussion about mental health, particularly in the hospitality industry, and more broadly; people wrote on social media about their own struggles with depression and suicidal tendencies. As always, all one can hope with a tragic loss like this is that it sparks a profound debate, which could have lasting cultural or even legal changes and help others find their way. I hope this doesn’t sound inauthentic, because many people are saying this, but I’ll chime in: if any of you need a friend, even if you’ve never met me, please reach out. I do check my messages, probably more often than necessary, on all forms of social media and e-mail. I will make time for you if you’re hurting inside.

AUSSIE DRINKING. Back in Australia, it’s pine mushroom foraging season. They are everywhere! We’ve been sauteeing them and having them on toast, or in an omelette; I also pickled some, just because there are so many.

And it also means: back to drinking Aussie wine. And I’m very lucky to be doing so, because all over this country, natural winemakers are making some of the freshest, most gluggable juice out there. Australia’s natural wine scene is largely concentrated in the Adelaide Hills area, but that’s far from the only place it’s happening. Take, for example, Momento Mori, made by Dane Johns in Victoria; these are small-batch wines featuring mostly Italian varieties made with skin contact. I’ve enjoyed them a few times, had the pleasure of re-tasting them at a recent event in Melbourne called Handmade.

I also got to retaste some favorites from Travis Tausend, located in the Adelaide Hills. His winemaking is inspired by his time working with Sebastien Riffault and Daniel Sage in France. That should be enough motivation to try them! Tausend’s wines do make it over to Europe and the U.S. in small amounts, so keep an eye out.

(By the way: my spellcheck now autocorrects “favorites” as “favourites.” Is it only a matter of time before I make the switch??? Oh, and happy birthday to the Queen! That feels really weird to write.)

I also love this Savagnin from the Barossa-based duo Yetti and the Kokonut, which I drank recently with some friends here in the Basket Range. The story behind Savagnin in Australia is funny — it was brought over mistakenly labeled as Albariño. What a happy mistake for us Jura lovers! And re: the fireplace, yes, it is “winter” here. I am sorry, but I grew up on the East Coast — an average of 14 Celsius with sunny days does not make a very scary winter! But it does get cold inside the houses here. I’ve become very good at building a fire! Watch out Scandinavia, Basket Range hygge is totally a thing.

WRITING. I’ve been working on a short story lately — as in, fiction! Nothing to do with wine. As soon as I send this, I am going to return to that. Also, I have something else in the works completely unrelated to wine writing; I guess you could call it a travel book, or a guide to traveling? But it’s written by me, so it’s not exactly your average travel guide. Stay tuned for more on that in a month or so.

And, are YOU a writer? Are your friends writers? Please share with them the submissions guidelines for Pipette Magazine, my new indie mag venture (Terre, rebranded, essentially). The first issue is already shaping up to be pretty good! Follow along on the Pipette Instagram and via the newsletter.

Have a good start to your week! Long live the Queen! Cheers! RS