Rachel Signer’s life in New York was far from what she had imagined it would be. When she wasn’t waitressing or selling wine at a local wine store in Brooklyn, she was hustling as an under-appreciated freelance writer. She was discontent and realized there was more she craved.
She moved from her small New York City apartment under the freeway to Paris. Signer’s love for the sparkling natural wine pétillant-naturel (or pét-nat for short), coupled with her frustrations and lack of romantic prospects in New York, encouraged her decision. The travel didn’t stop there.
From Paris, Signer began a journey of self-discovery that led her around the world to study all aspects of wine in countries like the Republic of Georgia, Slovenia, France, Sardinia, and Australia, among many others. Throughout her travels, she sampled hundreds of global wines and committed to learning about the wine producers in the industry. She eventually decided to make her own wine. Along the way, she found a partner who not only shared with her a mutual appreciation for wine-making, but a desire to start a life and family together.
Signer documents her life story and the lessons she learns in her upcoming book You Had Me at Pét-Nat, available on October 19. The book is an inspiration to chase your passions — even if your passion happens to be different than traveling the world studying wine.
“If you feel stuck or someplace is calling to you,” Signer says, “you really owe it to yourself to get out there. You’ll never have enough money saved up, you might not have exactly the right visa at the moment, but if you wait too long, you’ll never do it.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re an avid traveller who has spent a lot of time in the States, Europe, and Australia, among other places. What’s your favorite destination and what did it teach you about winemaking?
Unquestionably, Paris has always been (and still is) my spiritual home for natural wine. Parisians were early champions of natural wine, giving it a home in bistros such as Le Baratin that served rustic, simple, but exceptionally flavorful dishes alongside wines made in the same spirit.
Parisians have, in general, a very special attitude toward wine in that it is a necessary pleasure and integral part of the meal. Natural wine culture in Paris is surprisingly unpretentious. The way restaurants offer you wine is to essentially expect that you trust them — they will show you a few bottles and ask you to choose quickly without saying more than “this is a beautiful light red from the Jura.”
Paris taught me a lot about how to consume wine. In terms of winemaking, I’d say that I learned a lot visiting the Republic of Georgia, where I saw how very little technology and minimalistic vineyard management could produce extraordinary natural wines.
Speaking of Paris, you witnessed first hand the difficulties of picking your own fruit in France. What did you learn through this experience?
When you look at a vineyard, you see a piece of land with some leafy trunks growing in rows. To the people who make wine from that land, it represents a stunning amount of year-round work: hand-weeding or maybe driving a tractor through the rows, planting green manure, pruning in winter and possibly also in summer, canopy management — and that’s not even to mention the sprays to protect against mold and mildew. When I worked harvest with Domaine Mosse that I discuss in chapter 3 of my book, I came to understand how complicated and chaotic vineyard management can be for today’s natural winemakers who don’t necessarily have one large estate next to their house, but rather several plots in different locations.
You found the love of your life, and now husband, Anton van Klopper on a trip to Georgia. Do you have any advice for travelers who are looking for love during their travels?
It’s exciting to encounter love while you’re abroad because you’re not really thinking about that since you’re absorbed in the experience and culture around you. That’s an excellent way to meet someone because you don’t have the trappings of routine “dating” as you would at home. For me, it was challenging to navigate communicating over a great distance. I would suggest setting boundaries so the other person understands when you need space to live in the present when you’re not in the same part of the world.
You’re now in Australia with a husband and child, and you’re making your own natural wine and publishing your own magazine, Pipette. Is this all you dreamed about in terms of your career and personal aspirations?
Having a farm and a winery within reach of the house means that we’re never not working. Usually, I answer emails for Pipette magazine while having coffee, and then I’m doing some winery or farm work in the morning, and then magazine work like editing or layout design again in the afternoon. My goal is to spend more time with our daughter and work less, but there’s always so much to do!
We just started bottling the 2021 wines, and next is labelling them and packing them for shipment. Then we have about two months before it’s time to get ready for harvest again. This year we’ve been improving and diversifying our farm, which features about 6,000 young vines planted over the past two years, and a veggie patch that supplies my husband’s restaurant. We’ve planted avocado trees, more olive trees for oil production, blueberries, and many apple and stonefruit trees. I’ve been planting lavender, yarrow, and tansy around the vineyards.
My hands are leathered, with all sorts of nicks, and my arm is always sore from working the hand hoe. But we enjoy natural wine and organic food so much, and our daughter loves being in the winery and the veggie patch, and there are so many beautiful moments. It’s just hard with the pandemic — we don’t get a break to travel, so we work and work!
In your book, you discuss the connection you feel to Paris, especially because your best friend and “sister” Gaba lives there. What drew you to Paris? Is there any chance of you returning there?
I would have been back to Paris at least twice now if not for the pandemic, since Australia has a strict, ongoing border closure. I really miss France, especially Paris but also other regions, and I miss Gaba. Sometimes I dream in French. Gaba and I also spent time traveling in Italy and had plans to do that. All of that’s on hold now. But I don’t think I’ll live in a city again in the near future now that winemaking is so central to my and my husband’s lives. We are presently researching the possibility of having a very small agriturismo operation in Italy, perhaps with a tiny vineyard, but nothing requiring too much equipment so that we can spend more time with friends and family in the Northern Hemisphere.
The world of wine is complex. What are your suggestions for someone trying to enter this industry? Do you think there’s a “wine capital” somewhere that they must tap into?
It used to be that New York was the wine capital of the States, but natural wine in particular is flourishing all over the country! Pipette has stockists in small towns I’d never even heard of.
I do suggest finding time to visit New York occasionally for events and tastings because you can meet importers (many of whom are based there) and establish a relationship with them, which really helps for buying wine. You can also meet traveling winemakers once that is happening again. It’s a good idea to attend wine fairs such as RAW so you can taste widely and meet the producers.
But there are lots of other places where natural wine is becoming very exciting, such as Baltimore, Portland, Oregon, Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles. I definitely recommend offering yourself as a harvest intern for a few weeks, but be prepared to work really hard on very little sleep.
You spent 7 years in Brooklyn. Do you think the wine scene in New York has changed since you left?
From what I can tell, it was blossoming beautifully with many new and exciting wine programs until the pandemic hit. As we know, it hit New York particularly badly at the start. Fortunately, New York is strong and I’m sure the wine scene will eventually bounce back.