So You Wanna Be A Winemaker?

But do you *really*?

Rachel Signer Wine

This is a guest post by the brilliant Rachel Signer, author of "You Had Me At Pét-Nat" and winemaker of Cleopatra Wines (formally Persephone Wines) in Australia.

Has the Natty Wine Bug Bit You?

You are young and impressionable, or you are young and wild, or you are not-so-young but for whatever reason, you have fallen in love with this very silly thing called natural wine. You live in a city, or a medium-sized town, and — double-major in International Relations and Classics be damned! — you get a part-time job at a wine shop, which provides you with $15 an hour plus opportunities to taste wines made by interesting-sounding farmers in places like the Loire Valley, or Lazio, or even the Republic of Georgia. You work your way around the wine scene, meeting one importer after another, appearing at industry tastings, and learn to pronounce words like “élevage” and “veraison.”

At one industry tasting, you get really drunk and go to the after-party with all the cool kids in the scene. Then, at a Big Wine Fair™, you meet all the winemakers of your dreams! There are scruffy men with raspy voices who speak to you about the “cosmos”; a couple with stern faces and wide-rimmed hats profess their allegiance to moon cycles; a young woman pours you a gorgeous concoction that reminds you of Kool-aid but of course you don’t say that, you say, “stonefruits.” It’s overwhelming, but you love it. You also go to the after-party, and talk late into the night with winemakers who pour from their very own magnums.

Two years go by, and you’ve got the itch: You want a harvest internship. Should you go to Oregon, work in an urban winery? What about South Africa? Oops, they’re on the opposite season, nevermind. It has to be France — you got up to the 202 level in college and you are completely obsessed with Chenin Blanc (which you’ve learned how to say, like the French, Sheh-nah).

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Les Vendanges

You have your shifts covered for a month. You find a subletter. On the first of September, you pack up a pair of Blundstones (broken in by wearing around your apartment as you cleaned it for the subletter), some overalls, a few flannel shirts, and some shampoo. You’re ready! You arrive to Charles de Gaule. There’s a strike. You have to take a very expensive taxi to a far-flung train station which, a British man tells you, might have some operations. In the taxi, you wonder if it was wise not to go somewhere you could get paid. Damn being American, why can’t we work anywhere? Oh right, because we don’t let anyone work in our country.

Jet-lagged and dying for some real food, you board a slow train out to Angers. A ramshackle, old white van pulls up and a tall guy with dreadlocks gets out. He is the winemaker’s son, apparently starting his own label, destined for greatness. That night, you struggle to stay awake as you are fed a three course meal culminating in boeuf bourguignon and, like, seven-year-old Comté, with lots and lots of wine. Nobody speaks English. You have no fucking idea what any of them are saying.

The next three weeks are a painful, embarrassing blur. There are all sorts of basic winemaking tasks that you cannot do. Old man winemaker and dreadlocked son are far too busy to show you anything. So you spend your days picking grapes. Picking, picking picking. Your back hurts. You’re tired of picking. You want to learn winemaking. Finally, you get your nerve up. You tell dreadlocks you want some lessons, in something, anything, so that you can help. Over the next few days, you learn how to load the press. You try out the forklift.

By the time you leave France, you are slightly confident in your abilities. You feel that your time in the winery gave you access to privileged information. You saw the sausage being made. And you liked it.

More years go by, more harvest internships. Now you’re a part-time, junior assistant winemaker at Boppity Boop Wines in your home state. It’s crazy how everyone around you seems to be making wine on the side! That guy, he has a cult label of 4500 bottles a year. That woman, she is quitting next year to focus on her label, which has a growing following. You want to do it, too!

Building Your Brand

You start with three barrels of wine. They turn out pretty well. Is it beginner’s luck? You aren’t sure, but you need money, so you bottle them with your boss’s machinery, label them, and put them on the market. People buy them! Who knew! It turns out that natural wine is a really vibrant, growing scene. There is thirst. You’re getting in at the right moment.

 Rachel Signer

Years go by, and you progress from 3000 bottles made with your boss’s machinery, to using a cooperative space where you share two forklifts amongst four winemakers, and you take on a new vineyard, which brings you up to 4500 bottles. Suddenly you see yourself making big money. Like more than 80 grand! You start to pay off your student loans. But this vineyard requires you to actually farm it. So you will do the pruning, over winter. You will do the shoot-thinning, over spring. You will manage the sprays, during the wet season.

You need help, so you hire a crew. Now your 80 grand goes down to 60 grand. Still good, although your rent has increased, and in the back of your mind you think about how you’d like to buy a place, you’d like to have a kid, and you haven’t had a vacation in like seven years.

Did I Really Wanna Be A Winemaker?

While your friends, who have steady jobs, are vacationing in Tuscany or Joshua Tree or wherever, you are on your knees in the vineyard. You are mixing up batches of sulfur-and-copper while wearing a mask and gloves, then passing them off to the vineyard owner, who doesn’t let you drive his tractor.

Or you are going back-and-forth with your label designer. You’re tasting, blending, bottling for hours on end, occasionally with help. Then, you have to pack up all the wines. You have to ship them to website customers, or to wine shops. You have blisters on your hands from pruning and cuts from boxing. So you hire more help. You hire a distributor. Your 60 grand goes down to 45 grand.

But a few wine bloggers have recently posted reviews about your stuff, and it’s getting around to the cool wine shops, including the one you used to work at!

 Rachel Signer Wine

 You need more vineyards, your brand needs to grow! But how? You work all the time and hire as much help as you can afford. You grow to 6000 bottles and now you actually struggle to sell your wine. You go to the wine fairs — not yet the Big Wine Fair — which costs you quite a bit. Now you are one of the people behind the table, explaining that you bottle on the new moonwhy you don’t add sulfites, which growers you buy fruit from and what soil types the grapes are grown on.

You have reached your late thirties, and now when harvest rolls around, you anticipate back pain, exhaustion, stress. You sometimes wonder how you will ever retire, what will you retire on? You are still renting. You own a press, a modest piece of second-hand equipment, and some old barrels. A few ceramic vessels. A beaten-up forklift. You love seeing people drink your wines. You’re proud of these wines.


Some days when you’re working in the vineyard, you are possessed by awe for these incredible plants, their unique position in the world of agriculture, by the beauty all around you. You feel the thrill every time harvest comes around, but it’s followed by the let-down as it ends — and you wonder if you’ve done everything right. You sometimes remember your bright-eyed, bushy-tailed days, and wonder: If you could talk to your younger self, would you say, yes, become a winemaker! Or would you say something else?


You… are not me! This was not an autobiographical piece.

But I did write it in part based on my experiences as a producer, as well as what I have observed. [The photos above are all mine, including one from my harvest experience with Domaine Mosse, described in chapter three of my book.]

I also wrote it in part to explain why I hardly ever write about wine any more. (In fact, these days I’m writing about culture more generally.)

Rachel Signer - Cleopatra Wines 

Although my personal label, Cleopatra Wines (formerly known as Persephone Wines), is extremely small, I am married to a winemaker, and winemaking encompasses my life. It is not a 9-to-5. I think it’s a really challenging way to live, unless you are born into it. If your parents already have a vineyard, and you inherit it, or you become part of the family business, much of what I described above isn’t really an issue. Of course, it is different if you transition from being a grower to a winemaker. Every situation is different.

I didn’t write this to complain, either.

I wrote this because as a consumer, I would never have known what it’s really like on the producer side. And I realized that a lot of people signed up to this newsletter because they read my book or they read Pipette, and I don’t really offer much in terms of wine writing lately. I thought I’d just have a huge glass of pét-nat and see what flowed out. And this was it.

It’s a beautiful thing to catch the winemaking bug, and I wouldn’t want anyone to not pursue that path. On the contrary, we need more natural winemakers, especially those coming from marginalized backgrounds. But it’s worth knowing ahead of time what logistical challenges may lie ahead.


This is a guest post. We loved reading this piece by Rachel Signer so much in her newsletter we asked if we could share it here on morenaturalwine. Rachel makes wonderful wines under the name Cleopatra Wines (formally known as Persephone Wines, sadly sold out atm) and wrote the EXCELLENT BOOK "You Had Me At Pet Nat" which is available here on morenaturalwine and other nice places. Grab a copy and SUBSCRIBE to Rachel's newsletter here.


Written by Rachel Signer, even if below suggest otherwise!