Oct 8, 2021 • 34M

A Conversation with Rachel Signer

Talking to the author of the new memoir 'You Had Me at Pét-Nat: A Natural Wine Soaked,' maker of Persephone Wines, and editor of 'Pipette' magazine.

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I met Rachel Signer years ago while we were both freelancers living in Brooklyn. We were at a press dinner for a restaurant called Gristmill, which I just checked on: It’s now sadly closed. We’ve kept up with each other’s careers ever since on social media, and I’m so thrilled to see her memoir—ˆYou Had Me at Pét-Nat, a beautiful and enthralling work that enacts Signer’s restlessness and eventual homecoming—in the world and discuss her life in Australia, where she’s making wine, raising her daughter on a farm, and continuing to show the world the significance of natural wine.

We discuss how she defines natural wine, leaving New York City, how she maintains such vivid memories to write from, and more. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Rachel. Thank you so much for being here.

Rachel: Hey, Alicia. Yeah, thanks. Happy to be here. 

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate? 

Rachel: Yeah, I love this question. 

I grew up in Arlington, Virginia. And a typical weekday dinner was a dish called salmon patties. And the salmon came in a can. And I think it was probably lightly floured and seasoned, and shaped and then kind of fried in a pan and served alongside peas or broccoli. And I loved it. I definitely really liked that dinner. And I imagine for my parents it was good, because it probably took like 12 minutes to make. And my mother grew vegetables. And I remember in the summer there being a lot of corn, corn on the cob. I remember there being tomatoes, and all of those summer veggies. 

And also very important—sorry, I have a cold. Very important meals were around Jewish holidays. So we would have a beef brisket, which I'm pretty sure would have been a Passover dish. Because you don't eat flour around that week, so you tend to have a roast meat. My mom would braise it with Heineken. It had to be Heineken. And she would sip half a can as she cooked. And then kugel, which is an egg noodle pudding. That happens around the New Year.  

I also was a vegetarian from ages 12 to 20, which was, honestly, sort of a random decision. I only started reading all of the kind of literature, like Diet for a [Small] Planet, after I'd made the decision. So I don't quite know where it came from. I was not a very model vegetarian. I subsisted on granola bars, bagels with cream, and quesadillas for a long time. That’s what I ate.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Yeah. I love that. 

And then you came to natural wine eventually. And I'm going to jump a lot. And I'm sure we'll work our way backwards. But I wanted to ask, how do you define natural wine? Because I think it's important to have how you think of it first before we talk about your life, your book, because it is such a huge part of everything, and—including the memoir

Rachel: Yeah, I'd love to get into it.

There's never enough that can be said about what it is because it’s still not a legally defined term. However, that is slowly changing. France has introduced a category called vin méthode nature, in which they—I think they visit the winery, and they analyze the wines to make sure they meet the definition. And we might see more of that in the future. 

But yeah, it needs to be from an organically farmed vineyard. And I'll put that first and foremost, ’cause nothing else matters if the grapes are coming from poisoned farming. So no, herbicides, fungicides. And those are really the main things. Pesticides as well. So organic farmers will use copper and sulfur and lots of plant-based treatments to manage grape vines. And grape vines do need a lot of spraying and a lot of management.

Then we're talking about wine made with very minimal intervention. And a lot of wine drinkers will be surprised to know that stuff is added to wine, because since it's not considered a food, it's not required to list any of those additives on the label. So if you walk into a winemaking store, there's a whole section of stuff that makes your wine taste a certain way. 

Before that, there's packaged yeast. And there's nothing evil about adding packaged yeast. It's an altered way to make a wine. And once you start with an altered way, you've interrupted the natural process, and you're going to need to keep adding stuff. So no yeast, no flavorints, no added wood chips, no mega purple. No fining and filtration. So, you're just getting the grapes. 

Quite a lot of people we consider natural winemakers do add small amounts of CO2, sulfur dioxide, commonly known as sulfites, or sulfur, a very hotly debated word and topic. And personally I would say when you're getting past 30 parts per million sulfites added, we're not really—I'm not sure it's a winemaker who really cares about being natural. However, I still celebrate biodynamic farming, so if they're adding 60 parts per million sulfites, I'm not so mad.

I'll just add, Alicia, that, especially in the past couple of years, I've really come to think about the idea of being anti-capitalistic as something part of making natural wine, to an extent.

Alicia: Well, can you talk more about that?

Rachel: Yeah. And I think it's definitely in theory, because I don't know when there will ever be something that measures if you're anti-capitalistic. But natural wine is definitely a culture based around personalities and relationships, and kind of passing on what it was like when you visited this winemaker. 

Yeah, I mean, if a wine is made as part of a big corporate thing and LVMH is the owner of that winery, I'm not interested. Even if they farmed organically, I'm just not because where's the spirit? I want something where the winemaker touched the bottles and touched the wine. 

And even very small, natural winemakers do have someone full-time helping in the cellar. So I'm not under the illusion that there's one person doing everything-everything. That's not the case for us, either, where we make wine. But yeah, I want it to be a small operation because that is more caring for individuals. 

And there was a case last year, a winemaker in Puglia that was in the news a lot really showed us what can happen. I mean, that's a massive operation. From the beginning, everyone—a lot of people suspected something was not right, which turned out to be true. 

And I think all of that is very tricky. You really have to ask someone selling you the wine for as much information as possible. How are you going to know all that stuff? It’s hard.

Alicia: Yeah. 

No. And I love that because I think that we have to talk about, in food and beverage, when someone is scaling up and is readily available, it's always a red flag. It's always a red flag for something to be always abundant, always available in every store. We know that the alcohol we see in every single bodega is not going to be necessarily the best made, the most caring for the environment, the most caring for the labor that went into it. 

And that's what I love—I love that about natural wine is that it's so specific, and it's so maker-driven, and it's so place-driven. I got that too from your memoir, which is called You Had Me at Pet-Nat, which follows you from being a waitress and journalist in Brooklyn to a writer and now a winemaker in South Australia. How has delving into this world affected you as a writer and how has being a winemaker affected you as a writer? How has this influenced you and your work?

Rachel: It has helped me so much in understanding the year-long cycle of winemaking. I mean, as a journalist living in a city, you're—generally, you're invited by some kind of regional association. They buy your flight. And you have the privilege of spending seven days in a region seeing a very selected group of winemakers, and you just don't get the full story. 

And I've really benefited from doing it myself and seeing other people throughout the year and what they struggle with and the challenges that they face and the choices they make and their attitudes and what—you see it as this delicious wine and this blend, whatever. And from their point of view, that wine started out as a disaster because kangaroos attacked that patch. The grapes were so hard to pick. And then they decided this. They decided that, and then finally got blended with this because they didn't know what to do. And then suddenly, it was good. 

And that backstory is really important in terms of what questions I ask people and how I choose to write about them. I think I write about winemaking less and less, and I write more and more about lifestyle and the choices people make, which influence, ultimately, their wines. So it's helped me immensely. It's a really good thing to be, to have your—even if you just had one hand involved in a project, I think it would really help writers definitely.

Alicia: Right, for sure.

The memoir is—in its detail about the wines you've drank over the years—is just stunning that there's so much detail. I was like, ‘Have you kept tasting notes and diaries over this time?’ And how did you re-create those memories in such a specific and vivid way?

Rachel: Yeah, I'm looking at this spot on my desk right now. Because when I moved to Australia, that spot was stacked high with notebooks going back to 2014, when I first went to Burgundy. So almost seven years of journals. And I refused to throw them out, because I was—even then I was like, ‘Maybe I'll use this for something.’ And eventually, I was like, ‘I'm gonna write a book.’

Yeah, I've kept pretty intense notes about all the wines and all the winemakers, and to some extent, personal notes as well in a separate journal. I really recommend that. Have one journal for your personal stuff, and then one for your professional. And I filled in some things with emails, going back to emails with friends and family, like, ‘When did we go here? And when did we go there?’ Photos on my iPhone to re-create things. Yeah, ’cause that's really important. 

And in terms of the chapter at Domaine Mosse, where I worked hardest, I basically just spent every night writing in my journal there for like 45 minutes. And I think because it was such a vivid experience also, scenes from that—I mean, I remember those two weeks more vividly than I remember half of my childhood. It's just so vital to me right now. 

Alicia: I've lost a lot of journals. I have all of my teenage and childhood journals in the garage at my—the house where I grew up. But I lost a journal from a very important time. And I am still really upset about it. I'm so concerned. It was very thorough notes that I'm like, ‘How am I going to ever re-create this?’ I guess I just won’t. The writing of things does make it more concrete in your mind, anyway. You really do inscribe it on your mind, which is something.

But I was so impressed and actually inspired by those tasting notes. Because I always have this idea that I'm going to be that person who takes extensive notes on things, and then I'm like, ‘I am just not.’ I have pictures of everything I've eaten and drank for the last six years, though, on my phone. So, that's useful. I pay Apple a lot of money for the storage. 

But another thing I loved about your memoir is that you don't shy away from describing hangovers, but they're very neutral. You don't talk about being hungover in, like, a self-loathing or self-critical way. It's kind of just like, ‘This is an effect of living this life, doing this job, drinking these wines.’ And I've read, I'm sure you've read people talk about how you don't get hangovers from natural wine, which is funny. 

And so, why was it important to you to just to document those effects and not shy away from those side effects of being in this world?

Rachel: Yeah, I think it was important for the personal aspect of my memoir. I mean, as you know, I'm kind of using natural wine in a way to document a personal transformation. I changed a lot in the past few years, and I went to some pretty dark places. And I think when you're in that place, alcohol, no matter what kind, can be a form of self-harm. 

And to say that that doesn't exist in the natural wine world is just ridiculous. There's lots of overconsumption and partying. And I've had some amazing times drinking Magnums until 3 a.m. 

But yeah, I think it can be a form of a lack of self-care and self-harm. And so, I think I documented that because that's where I was. And yeah, I thought that I was going to be living the dream. And I wanted it to look on social media like I was living the dream. But I was not. 

And yeah, I guess a bit more broadly speaking, the idea that natural wine doesn't give you a hangover can have some relevance because I think if you drink a few glasses of natural wine compared to a few glasses of wine from a supermarket, you will probably notice that you feel better. And I've heard that from so, so, so, so, so many people. But when we're talking about someone that drinks natural wine on a regular basis, yeah, they're gonna go out on a Friday and drink a whole bunch of wine. And they're gonna have a hangover the next day. It’s the alcohol that does that. 

Alicia: Yeah. 

No, it's funny because we've only really—natural wine has only just arrived in Puerto Rico. And so, we've been going a little overboard for sure. So it was funny to read. It's not funny—yeah, as you say, it is a dark description of the time. But at the same time, it's like, ‘Oh.’ It was actually, for me, reassuring in that I was like, ‘Oh, right. Even though I've been told in this wellness way that natural wine isn't supposed to have the same effects, it's like, ‘No, actually, overindulgence of all kinds has the same effect.’’

And you have a real love for Paris that's so well-documented in the book. You're now in Australia. I also left New York in the last couple of years. How has being outside of the U.S. and specifically New York City affected your work, do you think? Not just as being a winemaker, but just that perspective of being outside of a place that—I think once you get out of New York, you realize that it's very parochial and a bit shut off from reality in the world. I don't know if you feel that way. How have things changed for you since you left New York?

Rachel: Yeah, I just think broadening your perspective and living abroad is so important. I don't know if all Americans realize how myopic the viewpoint from within the States can be. I am sure that quite a lot of people do realize that. 

But it's been really good to actually just be able to see the world from a broader standpoint. I mean, Australia is such a bizarre kind of place in the world. For us, Japan is more of a neighbor. We have different benchmarks and different relationships with the world here. Southeast Asia is very close. So, it's been really interesting. 

I think I just needed to leave New York. And I mean, I've seen a lot of people move upstate as well. New York is so hard if you're not from money. How long can you go on accumulating credit card debt and living in sub-optimal situations and not being able to fully—and I did offer myself some things. I went to the bath houses in the East Village once a month during winter. I used to go to a Chinese body worker on the Lower East Side. I tried, I tried. But it's really hard when you're not making the big bucks. 

But I gained so much. Being there and taking fiction writing workshops and journalism workshops and meeting people going to literary magazine events, I took that all with me. And it's just here. It's just with me. And now I get to enjoy other perspectives, people that have grown up in other places and learn about their lives. I feel pretty good about the decision. 

The pandemic has been incredibly hard. I haven't been to the States in 2018, haven't seen my family or my friends. I didn't mean to have such a clean break. I wasn’t trying to abandon ship. And we've been back to New York. It was like four days. Went to The Four Horsemen, went to Roberta's, saw a handful of people. And that was it. That's not how I imagined it. So it has been really hard in some ways, too.

Alicia: Yeah.

No, like we were saying before we started recording, that it's interesting that you have to leave New York especially when maybe your life up till moving there was—well, I grew up on Long Island, so it's a different—but is guided toward this, and you think that it's an achievement in and of itself to be there. And you have to make the most of it, and if you're not happy then that's a personal failing of some kind when it's really the city making it so unlivable for people who aren't doing six figures, and now probably honestly like more than that. [Laughs.] High six figures. 

And it is interesting to, for me personally, too, to have the success that I wanted. But I had to leave New York for that. But I didn't even know that I had to do that. It just was reality. The universe pushed me out, and then that was when anything good actually started to happen for me. 

But it's wild that that is the reality, because I do love New York. I wish it worked. [Laughs.] 

Rachel: Oh, I know. Exactly. 

Alicia: [Laughs.] 

But similarly, you write a lot in the book about the pains of being a freelancer, which I obviously know well, and that mainstream media wasn't interested in work about natural wines. I wanted to ask, how has that changed in recent years? Is self-publishing still the best route for good writing on natural wine?

Rachel: Hmm. Probably still.

I mean, there's, there's The Wine Zine based in New York, which is this really cool publication. To be honest, I've never gotten my hands on a copy. But I think it's widely available in the States. Punch Drink, Punch magazine has been doing a little bit of coverage on natural wine over the years. And that's a nice viewpoint. And I have seen some increased interest in mainstream and in smaller publications. It does seem to kind of reiterate some of the same topics. 

I mean, the thing that Pipette has always done is that—which no mainstream publication will ever do—is just profiles of natural winemakers. And these are people who are important if you definitely love and care about natural wine. And so a mainstream publication would not assume that about their audiences, whereas I can assume that about my readership. 

I don't know. I guess for me what's been more interesting is just seeing in the past year and a half the well and true diversification of voices and topics, finally. It’s great. It's really, really great. I'm like, ‘Wow, so many more interesting articles are coming out, interesting people kind of being elevated.’ And I'd love to just see more of that. 

And, yeah, I don't know. I don't know what will be filling kind of the space now that Pipette is going to stop publishing regularly. But I'd love to say something else come up.

Alicia: Yeah.

Why did you make that decision to stop publishing right now?

Rachel: The amount of admin and kind of computer work involved has just become hard with being a mother.

And I'm looking out the window at the farm. ’Cause we planted vineyards in the past two years. We have 6,000 baby vines, and we work them basically by hand. And I make wine. I would like to maybe slightly, possibly slightly increase. I mean, I make less than 3,000 bottles. It's all done by hand. 

And, yeah, I'd like for our daughter to be more a part of our lives on the farm. Yeah, I don't think I can justify the time spent in front of the computer, especially now that it's slightly less fun, ’cause I can't fly to Paris and go around Europe for two months visiting winemakers, which was kind of the original idea for the mag. 

It just feels right. I mean, 10 issues was great, that accomplishment. And I've loved working with all the people involved. Just because something seems like a success doesn't mean you have to keep going. I might do an encore edition one day. I'm very interested in doing a podcast. I love having conversations like this. It’s much more rewarding, actually. 

Alicia: Yeah, then doing admin work. [Laughs.]

I think that's why I decided to do—I needed to figure out something for paid subscribers. And I was like, ‘Well, I can just talk to people. That seems sweet.’ [Laughs.] And it's not as hard as you think it is to do a podcast at all. 

And I think that would actually be really great. I know there are wine podca—That's a niche that you still are one of the few people that could fill. But yeah, it's funny. Pipette was being sold here in San Juan. I don't know if you know that. There's a cafe that was selling the magazine. 

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. Café—Is it Cafe Regina?

Alicia: Café Regina. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I was like, ‘That's so funny.’ Just something that ended up in this tiny city, which is so cool. 

But I wanted to ask what are the biggest misconceptions you see about natural wine that are still talking points, because I—even as a casual reader of this kind of stuff, I'm like, I feel there's still like a lot of narratives that are wrong. [Laughs.] I don't know. 

Rachel: Ok.

I hear the idea that you can't find it anywhere, or it's too niche. And like, ‘Oh, but it's not in just regular restaurants, right?’ It's this niche thing. I think we can partly blame this mentality of if you know, you know. And we're all guilty of that to some extent in the natural wine world, because there are some bottles where it's if you know, you know. ‘A guy makes 300 bottles of this in a tiny shed in the mountains of the Rhone Valley. And it's amazing. And you wouldn't like it anyway.’ And the attitude just comes up a lot. 

But I have seen so many companies really just do the opposite in recent years, and really push to educate and share and actually distribute natural wine to places where it did not exist. So one example is a company called MYSA, M-Y-S-A. And they're in the U.S. just distributing amazing natural wine, and they do lots of education on their Instagram posts. 

And yeah, the proliferation of small businesses selling Pipette in small towns around the world has really shown me that it is everywhere. And it is a force. 

Yeah, I'm curious if you had any other misconceptions in mind.

Alicia: No, no, no. I'm probably thinking of maybe past thing. 

I think maybe that's actually exactly the misconception that has prevailed, which is that it's just people in Brooklyn guzzling orange wine. And it's not a thing anywhere else. It's not something that's interesting to the regular person. It's not something that's interesting to older people, that it is—just occupies a very niche space, that a lot of it is bad or flawed, and that sort of thing. 

I liked in your memoir, you talk about enjoying things that might seem off or wrong to other people, just finding the beauty in any piece of it. I think that if we change—it's the problem of the narratives of food and drink, generally, I think, is to think that there is a right—Something is correct, or there is one correct thing. And anything that deviates from that is incorrect or something.

Rachel: Well, it's a big problem with vegetables and produce. That's a really big problem. But with wine, yeah, you reminded me that there's the misconception that it will go bad and spoil and rot because it doesn't have preservatives. Sulfur dioxide is a preservative. 

And I'll just touch briefly upon that. It's not true. You do find volatile acidity, which is sort of a vinegar sort of flavor in some wines, but that happens from fermentation. That happens from day one. And it does not mean that the wine has gone bad. It's not spoile. And natural wine ages phenomenally. It just needs to be in a refrigerated condition, like 55 degrees Celsius. Sorry, we can work out later what that is in Fahrenheit. So, I've had natural wines that are like 10 years old. Basically, no sulfites added. Stunning, pristine. 

And so, yeah, I do talk a lot about flaws and where they come from in winemaking from my experience making wine in the book. I'm always happy to talk kind of more about that, because it's a very complicated topic. 

But my takeaway is if you want to support people that make wine organically in this very beautiful, artisanal way without chemicals, then you might occasionally get a wine that tastes a little wild, because it has a little bit of volatile acidity. But we don't want chemicals on our prop—chemicals on our farm. Our daughter can walk around the winery and play with stuff. And I don't have to worry she's gonna put her hand into some chemicals. We don't have them at all.

Alicia: [Laughs.] And for you, how do you define abundance?

Rachel: Ok, I love this question. 

Abundance is such an interesting word, and—because I think it hits upon a problem of being human, which is this persistent idea that we lack something. It's a very, very fundamental part of being human. 

We grow food. We make wine. If the climate crisis ended capitalism as we know it tomorrow, we'd probably be able to sort of be self-sufficient with all the things people around us that make other things. And at the same time, I would absolutely miss—I would miss so much. And I do right now.

A lot of the book is about a friendship with someone who is in Paris who I haven't seen in years. I feel abundance is having that person who can come over and just make ravioli with you on a Tuesday afternoon, and drink wine and go to the market and eat oysters on a Thursday morning. That is abundance, having that person in your life. So, I think it's always a bit, very human of us, that no matter how much we have, we can feel a lack. And I think accepting that is something important to work on for me.

Alicia: For sure. Yeah. 

The pandemic has been hard in Australia. How has it been for you?

Rachel: It's surreal, not being allowed to leave. I don't know if people outside Australia fully understand that we are not able to leave. You have to get permission to leave and they're denying it to most people. And then if you do leave, it's almost impossible to get back. Very, very, very hard to get back. Very expensive, two weeks of hotel quarantine. 

Australia provides Medicare. It provides a high minimum wage. Certain things are provided. And so like, there's this kind of relationship with the state where when they tell people what to do, it's kind of expect—it's a totally different concept of what the state is. And I guess the American in me just hates it. 

But at the same time, would we have gone abroad with a one year old baby who’s, that’s vulnerable? Or would we go abroad, now that she's not vaccinated but we are? Yeah, I mean, we probably would given data around kids, which I've listened to on every podcast available and read about in every scientific paper available.

The pandemic has been hard everywhere, but I've never felt so isolated. As a new mother in a country I've only lived in for a few years, which is literally an island at the end of the world. I've never felt so isolated. 

It's hard not to be able to go to the States for my book release. It sucks. I'm hoping that I'll get feedback from people that will be sort of, lift my mood a little bit, that people would be kind of sharing their experiences of reading the book and reaching out. I would love that. I read basically all messages in some form. So I'd be thrilled. 

Alicia: [Laughs.] Well, what do you have planned for the launch, at least virtually? 

Rachel: At this point, I'm still researching that. Your podcast will be part of that. I'll probably do some kind of online tasting. So yeah, I will be sure to share any update on that on my Instagram, which is @rachsig. 

And I also have a newsletter. It's just like a monthly-ish thing. And you can sign up. There's a link in my Instagram profile. I recommend natural wine and books. I read a lot. I read literary fiction and non-fiction. So for people who care about things other than wine and food, I'm your person. I don't know. Yeah, I talk about what I'm reading or stuff that I'm listening to. Sometimes I talk about music. It's a bit of everything. Yeah, I talk about the magazine, obviously, of course, too.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Wonderful. 

Well, thank you so much for taking this time so early in the day. [Laughs.] 

Rachel: Yeah, it was great to talk with you. Yeah. Awesome to connect. Thanks so much.