Natural Wine Girl in a Classic Wine World
The plight of formal wine education for the pét-nat enthusiast
“My husband calls Pét-Nat wine for kids!” Here we go, I thought. Tucked in the back left corner of the classroom, I’d ought to remain safe from the blows of natty wine jokes to come. That is an actual, direct pét-nat quote from one of my WSET Diploma instructors, spoken just as we kicked off a notably tiny segment on méthode ancestrale wines during my D4 Sparkling Wine course.
I’ve spent nearly three years studying all things wine at the International Wine Center in New York. When I first enrolled, I barely knew anything about wine. I found the world of vino to be intimidating, as many would find a world where people use terms like “linear” to describe liquid that they subsequently spit into a public bucket. But when I came across the magical earth juice that is natural wine, I saw a door opening. Gone were the days of feeling bashful while using my quirky, unconventional descriptors or holding back from asking my nerdy questions at tastings—there are really no rules in the natural wine world (the term natural wine itself is undefined and unregulated). I was hooked, I had infinite questions and a lot more to learn. Enter wine school.
When it comes to wine certifications, there are a handful of options all focused on traditional wine education; there is currently no natural wine program. The classic ones range from region-specific courses (e.g. Wine Scholar’s Guild’s French Wine Scholar) to education-focused certifications (e.g. Society of Wine Educators’ Certified Wine Educator). But the two biggest hitters in the world of wine certs are the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), which focuses on service and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which focuses on communications. Having absolutely no idea what my future in wine would entail (or if I could even have a wine future), I enrolled in WSET.
The WSET Program consists of four levels, each increasing in difficulty. I liken this difficulty scale to eating peppers. Level 1 is your everyday, run-of-the-mill green bell pepper: delightful and enriching. Levels 2 and 3 are like shishito peppers: perhaps even better than the aforementioned green bell pepper (most definitely better when doused in salt and olive oil) but you’re bound to get some spicy ones in the mix. (My shishito pepper bag warns me that 1 in 10 is hot.) I didn’t find the jump between Levels 2 and 3 to be too big; Level 3 just has a bit more information, and is organized by region as opposed to grape variety. What pepper is Level 4?, you might wonder. Well, it’s like dumping a bunch of habaneros on your tongue and hoping for the best.
I often question why I’m putting myself through this program. It’s not always fun and it’s certainly not cheap. Some of the wines are just not my thing. And, most importantly to me, there is no focus on natural winemaking nor on biodynamic or organic farming. In fact, there is an underlying disappreciation and denunciation of natural wine. “If you have the technological advantages, why not use them?” (That’s another direct quote from a WSET instructor when asked about natural remedies in the vineyard.) But at the end of the day, I’ve watched myself evolve as a wine drinker (and writer!). I’ve tasted wines I never thought I would like and loved them. Aged Hunter Valley Semillon? Give it to me! VOS Oloroso Sherry? Hell yeah! I know so much unnecessary information about wine that it makes me giddy and confident and excited. After all, who said I can’t take a habanero every now and then?
Along with all the knowledge and testing my palate, the WSET program has inadvertently developed in me a new sense of appreciation for natural winemakers. In my D1 Wine Production class, we explored the ins and outs of making wine, and with that, all things that can go wrong during the grape growing and winemaking processes. According to WSET, there is nothing that technology can’t fix. Got a bad case of downy mildew? That is why god invented fungicides! they’d say. Was the weather too hot nearing ripening, causing malic acid to drop dramatically leaving grapes that lack natural acidity? Don’t panic—we can fix that with acidification! And my personal favorite: threat of frost just after bud break? No worries—we’ll call in the old helicopter to pull warm air downward and save these baby buds from an early death. (OK, I admit this one is probably rarely used.) The list of “interventions” winemakers can take goes on. In fact, there are hundreds of decisions that go into making a single cuvée.
Natural winemakers, though, choose natural remedies to avoid the aforementioned fixes. To combat fungal diseases, for example, they maintain an open canopy to improve air circulation and allow the vines to breathe. In lieu of fertilizers, they encourage polycultures that improve soil structure and health, and increase biodiversity in the vineyard. In the cellar too, they take a hands-off approach, kickstarting fermentation with wild yeasts and leaving the final wines unfined and unfiltered. In this way, natural winemakers let the grapes, and the land, speak for itself.
Some of my favorite Instagram DMs come from others like me: natural wine lovers who have somehow found their way deep in the weeds of the Diploma program. When we find each other, it’s like a breath of fresh air, a reunion of two long-lost friends. Our conversations contain confessions, things like “I feel so out of place here” and “It feels like I’m harboring a secret.” Other DM favorites consist of those wondering if they should even enroll in Level 1 given their appreciation of natural wine. To those I say, go for it! The program is extensive and you will certainly improve your overall knowledge and understanding of the classics. Establishing these classic baselines is important in developing an overall understanding of wine’s past, present, and future. And I assure you that you can handle a few harmless natural wine jokes here and there.
I mean, at the end of the day, if Pét-Nat is wine for kids, I’d like to stay a kid forever.
Two Kid Wines, er, I mean Pét-Nats, To Try
Folias De Baco, “Uivo” Curtido Branco Pt Nat 2020 - $26
A vivacious orange color resulting from two weeks of skin contact, “Uivo” Curtido Pt Nat is a 100 percent Moscatel Galego sparkler from the Douro region of Portugal. You’ll discover notes of fresh white peaches, zesty tangerine juice, and pretty white flowers—a tropical storm that you want to get stuck in.
Domaine Saint Cyr, Pét Nat Rose 2020 - $27
This wine screams brunch. And even though the concept of brunch does nothing for me, I’d consider popping this wine with you on a Sunday before noon. 100 percent Gamay made in the méthode ancestrale, it’s uber fresh cherry and strawberry jam smothered over pristinely toasty sourdough bread. With its fuller body and creamy finish, it’s undoubtedly on the richer side for brunch bubbles, but the ripe, juicy fruit and mouth-watering acidity keeps you coming back for more. On that note, okay, maybe I do like brunch.
Loved this article, I'm trying to not be too discouraged that Level 3 was so easy for Beth! Thankfully I had already decided Level 4 was NOT in the cards for me...
I discovered natural wine about 9 years ago after about 35 years of drinking conventionally made wine. Loved it so much I now make it together with my son (who is a qualified winemaker - I just learn as I go). I don’t understand why conventional winemakers and educators despise natural wine - is it because they are so textbook bound that to go outside what they’ve been taught upsets their equilibrium? I also equate it to food. Are they still eating meat and three veg every night of the week because that’s what mum and grandma cooked? Power probably comes into it too. The world of wine has always been full of snobbery, exclusivity and money. I love the lack of rules with natural wine - Cabernet Sauvignon fermented on Sauvignon Blanc skins? Red/white grape blends? Why not, as long as it tastes great. The not so great side of being a natural wine addict is the profound disappointment of looking at a wine list in a restaurant or browsing the shelves of a wine shop and finding there is absolutely nothing you want to drink or buy.