Rachel Signer, YOU HAD ME AT PET-NAT

Rachel Signer, YOU HAD ME AT PET-NAT

Natural wine journalist, founder of Pipette Magazine, and winemaker Rachel Signer joins Zibby to discuss her memoir, You Had Me at Pét-Nat. The two talk about how and why Rachel made the leap into writing about natural wine at a time when many had no idea what that was and the experience she had that inspired her to share her stories in Pipette. Rachel also shares how to find natural wine in your area, what it was like to write this during the pandemic with a newborn, and which genre she wants to return to after completing a memoir.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rachel. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss You Had Me at Pét-Nat. Did I say that right?

Rachel Signer: Pét-nat.

Zibby: Pét-nat, okay. A Natural Wine-Soaked Memoir. I actually took a hundred years of French in school. That’s all I got from it, is basically nothing. There you go.

Rachel: It’s impossible to learn any language unless you basically go live in that country. Even then, there are challenges, but you have to do it.

Zibby: You had a great scene in the book when you arrive in Paris. You’re sitting there having your café crème and getting all — I was reading this with such longing. Oh, my gosh, how amazing would that be just to upend my life and take a little voyage and sit and sip coffee for a second in Paris? Thank you for that.

Rachel: I was writing it with longing because I had a six-month-old baby. It was winter. It was a pandemic. I had postpartum depression. I was writing it with a lot of desire for that exact moment. That’s okay. I’m kind of on the other side of things. I know how lucky I am to have lived through a lot of that. It’s all good.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, let’s come back to that in two seconds. First, if you wouldn’t mind just explaining a little bit more about the book for people listening so they know what your memoir is about.

Rachel: I wrote this book to educate people about natural wine, which is a movement about organic, unfiltered wine made without any additives whatsoever. I used my personal story to illuminate this world from the inside. That story spans from — it spans about three years, four years from discovery to becoming a wine journalist to essentially starting to become a winemaker. I tried to really get very honest about that kind of transformation. I think in the age of social media, a lot of people’s lives are very rosy-hued. Actually, it was very challenging going through so many of those changes and discoveries. It’s challenging pursuing what you love. What I wanted to get across is that it was also so exhilarating and exciting. I was really in love with this whole world. I just went for it.

Zibby: Good for you. It’s really inspiring. We need more stories like this where it’s possible. It’s not only just a pipe dream. I love, even, your magazine now is Pipette. It sounds sort of like this whole pipe dream. It’s perfect. You talk in the book about starting that magazine as well and all the anxiety about doing that and everything. Talk about your journey all through the wine all the way to now having this publication about it. By the way, I think it’s so amazing we’re sitting here — it’s early where I am in New York, but it’s late in Australia. You’re drinking wine. That is just the coolest thing.

Rachel: I know. It’s so wild. We don’t think about this enough, how the earth turns on its axis and how it affects everybody differently. We rotate around the sun in a way that it appears to rise first in the world on a small island off the coast of Australia. I always tell that to people when they’re like, wait, what time is it there? I’m like, just imagine that the sun was rising first near me. I hope that that helps them. I don’t know. It probably confuses them more. I was a freelance journalist, but I didn’t start out writing about food and wine. I go into that in the book. I accidentally discovered natural wine when I was working on fiction, my first love that I would like to get back to. I just was obsessed with natural wine. There were no previous indicators that I was going in that direction. I never really appreciated wine. My family didn’t have fine wine on the table. Quite the opposite. Some things are meant to be. This one really was. I immediately was interested in the cultural and political side of it. I just dove headfirst in. I forgot about fiction. I forgot about whatever journalism I was doing. I focused on wine writing. I was also doing food writing. I remember specifically, I asked a colleague of mine, a woman maybe fifteen years older than me — she’d been in the biz. I said, “I feel really split. I feel like learning about food and learning about wine and trying to write about them as kind of a novice journalist is really taking a lot.”

She said to me, “You know what? There’s not that many women in wine writing, so maybe you should just do that.” I was like, okay, and I did. When I started my magazine and when I started conceiving of this book, these were just dreams. I was kind of a nobody in Brooklyn and writing for anyone I could and occasionally for big names or occasionally for the well-established magazines. Natural wine was really niche then. It still is, but it was much more niche, so I found it hard. As my appreciation for natural wine increased and I found that I was not interested in writing about mainstream wine, I found it really hard to get assignments. Then I had an amazing experience. This is not in the book, but I traveled in the Loire Valley, which, having studied France, you would know of. It’s a really interesting, huge wine region not far at all from Paris, very accessible from Paris. I did a week. I did three natural winemakers a day. I was totally wrecked at the end. It was great. I was very amazed at the things that they were doing. I saw a lot of stories there, and nobody took them. There was also this guy in Oregon I wanted to write about. That’s when I started to think, maybe it’s time to consider self-publishing.

Zibby: Did you self-publish this book? No, it’s Hachette, isn’t it?

Rachel: I thought it would be a book, and then it became Pipette Magazine, essentially. Some of those stories, I never actually got to write. Maybe one day I will when my child is in school and I can just romp around France again.

Zibby: One question about the wine. Now I really want to try natural wine. If you’re at a restaurant and you’re ordering wine, how do you know if it’s a natural wine or not? It doesn’t really say on the menu. How do I get it aside from going into a store and saying, I definitely want a natural wine?

Rachel: I think going into a store would be a better place to start because you’re going to have much lower investment. You’ll have someone who can spend more time with you. There are a few restaurants I know of who have specified on their list, organic or natural wine, but those restaurants were in New York City. You can find so much natural wine in New York and increasingly, in the rest of the country. I just don’t know whether people are starting to do that in restaurants on wine lists. I think you need to maybe do a little google. Google natural wine in your town. I mean this for your listeners, too, wherever they are because it is now almost anywhere. That’s a good thing. That’s amazing that distribution has increased so much. There’s an app called Raisin, Raisin in French. They dedicate themselves to basically telling you where to find natural wine wherever you are. You could be anywhere in the world and just use the app. That’s a good place to start. It does have sort of a problem in terms of categorization and labeling because there is no natural wine category officially. It’s this very loose movement. There have been calls for more transparency. There’s definitely confusion. Anyone could make a wine that looks natural and market it in a certain way, but it’s not from organic vineyards or whatever. I think at a really good shop that specializes in natural wine, you’ll find people who are passionate enough that they’ve actually gone out of their way to go to tastings, meet producers in person, ask them questions. They might know the importers as well on a personal basis. I think that if you can locate a business like that, then you’re in good hands.

Zibby: What are the main benefits of natural wine? Why go to the trouble?

Rachel: That is a great question. I definitely don’t want to say that there are concrete, identifiable health benefits. There is a lot of data back and forth about whether sulfites cause allergic reactions or headaches and things like that, which are commonly attributed to them. I am just going to go ahead and say that natural wine is fun. I think it tastes great if you are open. If you’re the kind of person who likes kombucha, then you’ll like natural wine. It has that taste of fermentation because there’s no artificial yeast added. If you like sourdough bread or if you like eating lacto-fermented stuff and really strongly flavored pickles. For me, it’s fun. You can know as well that you’re buying something from a small, family-run business and that the farming should be organic. Even if it’s not certified, that is the general premise. That’s basically it. I think it’s fun. It tastes great. The more I got to know the people making it, the more I saw how passionate they were about reducing their impact in terms of viticulture. Just some really interesting projects out there and really interesting ways of winemaking that I don’t think you find in the conventional world. It’s very geeky. It’s super geeky. I think for people that are really into obscure music or obscure art movements, natural wine is a good fit.

Zibby: Interesting. I’m not sure I’m falling into any of those categories that you outlined, but it is worth a try just to do it. The wine in your hand right now, is that a natural wine?

Rachel: Oh, yeah. This is just one of my husband’s wines.

Zibby: Just wanted to make sure you were practicing what you preach. That’s all.

Rachel: Very much.

Zibby: Let’s go to the writing piece of all of this and the postpartum depression. Tell me about that. Where were you? Where were you in life? How did affect you? What happened? How’d you make your way through it? What on earth possessed you to try to do the hardest thing on earth while you were going through this? I’m kidding. Writing is such a salve, but it’s hard.

Rachel: They’re both the hardest thing on earth.

Zibby: Tell me about that destructive urge.

Rachel: I know. What the hell? I had been trying to sell a book for years. I had been with more than one agent. It wasn’t the right fit. Then I found this amazing agent. At the time, I was pregnant. I think when you’re pregnant, you don’t really understand what having a baby means. You’ve had some ideas that you’ve developed in various ways. They sort of float around in your mind. You’re like, my child will do this. My child and I will do X. You also don’t really think “our child.” You haven’t really thought of yourself as a family yet. You have these ideas. I continued trying to sell the book. Then when our daughter was four months old, my agent sold the book. I was like, oh, god. The pandemic had just begun. Australia had just shut its borders. I was breastfeeding this child. I called up a daycare that I had visited once when I was pregnant. They were like, “Sure, we have a space,” but she wasn’t taking a bottle. For the first six weeks that I worked on the manuscript after it had actually been sold when there’s that pressure — I sold it half-written. Then there’s this, oh, my god, someone is paying me money. People are going to read this.

I would drop her off. It was winter. It’s very rainy in our region of Australia in winter. Not snow, just rain. I would sit there in the car because nothing was open and because I knew that in about two hours I was going to get a call to pick her up and feed her because she wouldn’t take a bottle. I didn’t know how you — it took her weeks to accept a bottle. I basically sat in the car and wrote with my laptop on my lap with the heat on. I know it was insane, but I think I felt better doing that than I would have being fully at home with a child. I still feel that way. I love hanging out with our daughter, super love it, but I couldn’t do it full time. I will always work. I will always be creative. It’s super hard. I always question what I’m sacrificing in terms of her upbringing, but one day, she’s going to have a mother who has done the things that she wanted instead of a mother that regrets things she could’ve done.

Zibby: I have four kids. I stayed home with my first kids. There’s a big gap. It just so happened. With the little kids, I’m working all the time. It’s just whatever they get used to is what they expect. They don’t come with as many expectations as you think. This is my main takeaway from now almost fifteen years of parenting. It’s like, okay, this is what we do. This is what life is. This is what my mom is. This is what a mom does. This is how my life is. There’s no judgement. That’s what you give them. They don’t expect any different. I know this probably sounds obvious. If you just set the expectation, then that’s what they learn. No guilt. That’s my way of saying there should not be guilt associated.

Rachel: I think I had intense guilt. I projected it onto our daughter. I don’t know, they must pick up on things because she definitely made it hard.

Zibby: They pick up on everything, yes.

Rachel: They pick up on everything. She definitely made it hard for me sometimes, even to this day, very clingy. How could you leave me, Mom? How could you not want me around all the time? Then that changes for a few months. Then it comes back. I like that philosophy. I’m going to try to actually think that to myself.

Zibby: It’s not to say kids don’t always want to be with their moms. For most people, that’s not what happens. That’s not doable. It’s okay. Kids adapt to the craziest circumstances. This is not my place to really say. This is just my own personal opinion. I wasted so many years feeling guilty about so many things. All it does is drain me. It doesn’t benefit the kids at all. Not to say I don’t still have guilt. I have to go to some work event tonight. I’m already like, oh, no, I can’t put them to bed. They’re going to be so upset. I’m like, you know what? One day, they’ll have to go to a work event at night. They’ll know this is what you do. Anyway, that’s just my two cents. By the way, I wanted to tell you this at the beginning. I read your book during spring break. An old girlfriend of mine and I met with a bunch of other people after this wedding. She loves to read. I love to read. We’re always swapping books and everything. When we sat down by the pool in this amazing, very infrequent time just with a girlfriend, she was reading your book.

Rachel: Stop it. Oh, my god, that’s mind-blowing. That makes me so happy.

Zibby: It was great. Literally, she pulls out her Kindle. She reads a book a day. She’s the best reader I know. I was like, “What are you reading?” She like, “I’m reading –” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s in my backpack. I’m going to read that tomorrow.”

Rachel: What? Is she into wine or into France?

Zibby: Not overly. No, she just loves great books.

Rachel: That’s such a great story.

Zibby: I know. I thought you’d get a kick out of that. There we were in Mexico reading all about your all-over-the-world adventures.

Rachel: You write a book, and you maybe hear from a few amazing people who take the time to send messages. Otherwise, you’re like, it’s just out there. I haven’t been able to travel. I couldn’t do a book tour. I have this imagined audience that I hope exists.

Zibby: Well, Allison and I had a great time reading it.

Rachel: Good.

Zibby: Have you, by the way, been in touch with Victoria James who wrote a memoir called Wine Girl?

Rachel: Oh, yeah, Victoria, my parallel. She’s so amazing. For a year, we hung out a lot. She was at Piora, this Michelin-starred restaurant. I think I was learning a lot from her, to be honest. She’s very knowledgeable. We’d get together and do things and forage for her amaro. Then we kind of drifted off in different directions. I definitely was much more into natural wine. She was like, “I don’t know. I’m more into fine wine.” Then we both named our daughters Simone. So funny. I loved her book. I thought her book was really powerful.

Zibby: I actually just got — she sent me these wine glasses. Now she has a collection with Lenox. I was like, how cool is this? I love learning about this world, not that I am a huge wine aficionado. I just find it so interesting, especially the way authors like you are able to convey on the page something that is so sensory based. That’s not easy to do.

Rachel: Did it come through? I feel like it was difficult to walk that line between overexplaining and kind of wanting to move on. I don’t want to spend five pages on a single topic.

Zibby: Yes, check plus.

Rachel: Cool.

Zibby: This novel you’re going to write, what would you want it to be about?

Rachel: Oh, god, I feel like it’s really soon. A lot of ideas over the years have come by. This one has kind of stuck. It’s just about female friendship. It’s about women that lived together in their senior year of college having a reunion and confronting who they’ve become as opposed to who they thought they were. It’s a very intimate novel. There’s some challenges. It definitely has too many characters right now. I don’t know. I like fiction that is very close to real life. I read a lot of autofiction, which I’m sure some people find boring but I find gripping, like Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk. I don’t know what else. I just like fiction that’s really simple. I like to get into the nitty-gritty of relationships and identity.

Zibby: I love those books too. You’re preaching to the choir here. I also love how on your website you have two blogs, What I’m Drinking and What I’m Reading. It’s perfect. They go hand in hand often.

Rachel: Those are two things I can generally recommend to people, something to drink and something to read. I have a monthly Mailchimp newsletter. It’s not a substack, even though that’s all the rage. I just do it for free. I recommend, usually, something to read and something to drink, which is always a natural wine, basically. Occasionally, it’s a very eclectic beer or a spirit. It’s usually a natural wine.

Zibby: I’m totally going to sign up now after this podcast. Amazing. Rachel, thank you. This has been so fun. Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Rachel: Yes. Read, obviously. I’m sure everybody says that. Also, sign up for workshops. Just find them wherever you can. I know in some cities, you can kind of throw a stone and hit a workshop. That’s amazing. If you’re in a place like that, I would definitely say spend the money. Go out there. Get critiques. Put your work out there for other eyes to read. Hear what they have to say because they’re your readers. Also, don’t be afraid to approach writers you admire. Even if they are at the loftiest heights — you think you can’t write for The New Yorker, but someone has to write for The New Yorker. Maybe it’s you. Contact that New Yorker author when he’s in your town. Contact your favorite writer. Send fan mail. I think that’s an amazing thing to do. Maybe you start up a conversation with somebody. I think people really like that.

Zibby: I sent fan mail to an author when I was in fourth grade, fifth grade. She had the same name, Zibby. She was a middle-grade author. Her name was Zibby Oneal. My mom helped me find her address by calling the publisher. We got her address in Michigan. We became pen pals. I wrote her for years. She would write me back on this blue stationary. Then years later, she came to New York. She took me to tea at The Plaza.

Rachel: That is gorgeous. Oh, my god, that’s amazing. I want to take someone to — I don’t know if it’d be tea at The Plaza. Take them to have natural wine somewhere, maybe. I love that. That’s so beautiful.

Zibby: It was so great. I wore this ridiculous 1980s outfit with my shoulder pads. This is really dating myself.

Rachel: Shoulder pads.

Zibby: I remember it like it was yesterday. I loved this bright blue with red patten all over matching blouse and skirt. I felt so fancy.

Rachel: Is that in your — don’t you have a memoir coming out?

Zibby: I do have a memoir coming out. I actually was just thinking that. I was like, oh, I should write more about that. I should write an essay about that. I wonder if I put that in. I cut so much out. I had so many words. Then I basically chopped it in half, so I’m wondering if that is still in. At some point, I wrote about it. I hope it is. I’ll look.

Rachel: Oh, my god, I know, it’s so hard to look back at the manuscript. That’s exciting, though. And a children’s book.

Zibby: Yes, thank you. Thank you for knowing that. Thank you. Yes, it’s quite a year. Holding onto my hat and hoping it goes well.

Rachel: Of course, it will. That’s great.

Zibby: I’m begging people I know to preorder my books.

Rachel: Exactly.

Zibby: Anyway, it was great to meet you. If you’re ever in the New York area, let’s go for a glass of natural wine. Although, I’ll probably hate it.

Rachel: I definitely will be. That sounds great. That would be amazing. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.

Rachel: Bye.

Rachel Signer, YOU HAD ME AT PET-NAT

YOU HAD ME AT PET-NAT by Rachel Signer

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