Pét-nat vs Professor Champagne

Toussaint Stackhouse shares his journey from classical education to natural evangelism


“Wow, you like pét-nat?! It’s way too wild and funky for me”. 

“Damn, we were just vibing, bro!” I think to myself. It’s commonplace for this sentiment to be accompanied by a barrage of eyebrow exercises and a lecture that makes me feel like I was sent to the principal’s office to be scolded by Professor Champagne. In this instance, I was enjoying a lovely conversation with a wonderful dude, who I soon found out was a sales rep - hence the shift to the preachy shit. Now, I could have returned fire with a monologue that would have sent homie stumbling back to the Brut Brigade, but that attitude in itself is not the essence of what pét-nat, or the whole sector of “natural” wine for that matter, represents. Instead, I ask the one question I know will give me all the answers I need: 

“Bro, where did you study?!”

By no means do I consider my wine journey, which only began four years ago, unconventional or unique. Actually, my story is so eerily similar to the one told in the 2020 Netflix movie “Uncorked” that I sometimes feel as if I went through some sort of sick Truman Show experiment. I’ll hit you with the condensed version of my plot: Guy gets random opportunity to work at wine bar, doesn’t know shit but quickly falls in love with it, starts drinking his ass off and buys hella books to get educated, takes a chance and moves away from home to work on a vineyard, signs up for one of the incredibly intimidating wine certifying programs, studies his ass off for months with limited sleep and battles imposter syndrome, overcomes the odds and the haters and passes exam, and then, finally, celebrates officially being a wine professional. 

Seriously, doesn’t this sound like a movie you’ve seen? I will admit achieving my first certificate through the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is one of my greatest accomplishments. It gave me the foundation to deeply understand wine, no matter how hyper-focused it is to conventional winemaking and the laws that surround it (something I learned after I passed).

I can’t front, it’s pretty cool to flex my formal education from time to time. Want to know the difference between the Left Bank and Right Bank of Bordeaux? I got you. Or how about ageing requirements for Cava classification? Say no more, fam! As grateful as I am for this knowledge, the process isn’t always fun, and certainly isn’t cheap. Nevertheless, I keep going back for more, achieving certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in the summer of 2020.

If you aspire to gain some certs and don some fancy pins I definitely encourage you to seek out whatever programs are available where you are (they vary and can range from being region-specific to education-focused). Here in the States, if you seek a career focused on the service side of the industry, you’d go with the CMS. But if you desire to be on the communications side of things – writers, bloggers, and educators of the world – you’d lock in with the WSET.  

Although there are a number of unique and positive aspects to both of these courses there is a disappointing common thread; there is no focus on natural wine making, nor on organic or biodynamic farming. Honestly, it is completely disregarded, and often denounced, by the instructors of these programs. 

Case in point, a quote from a previous instructor that left the majority of my mates shaking their heads, pondering but seemingly in agreement: “Why wouldn’t you use technology to make sure you achieve the results you always want in the winery?” All I could do was wonder why in the hell we’d been talking about the importance of terroir for the past 90 minutes if that was the case.

Because of this, I will say my greatest lessons have come from working in wine shops. Lots of tangible education, and a breadth of wines available to you from all over the world, curated to satisfy the desires of most wine drinkers, no matter your level of understanding or amount of drinking experience. Not to mention the fat employee discount you’re typically afforded as well, which makes exploration a bit more, shall we say, palatable? I keep a job in a wine shop for all of these reasons, but most importantly to encourage a similar level of exploration in my customers who are clearly overwhelmed with choice paralysis. 

I know what that feels like. I also know how influential being in and interacting in these settings has been to my growth as a professional. I’ve learned my favourite wines come from volcanic soils, shout out to Mount Etna, and that Pinot Noir from Burgundy is going to be my third choice after a Pinot from Willamette, and a Spätburgunder. Most importantly, working in wine shops is where I fell in love with the most delicious juice in the world, a naturally sparkling style known as Pétillant Naturel. 

Pét-nat, for short, is perfect. It is natural wine to its core, where so many spontaneous elements contribute to the final product. It’s a winemaking style that pre-dates the methods used to make champagne, and is much less intrusive. When I describe the process of making pét-nat to people unfamiliar, the quickest and most direct way that I like to explain it is as “the winemaker assisting it through its journey, not dictating what the final product will be”. There aren’t any laws that restrict where it can be made, nor on the grapes you can use to produce it. You can age them and let them develop even deeper characteristics, or drink them while they are refreshing and vibrant and young. They are easily enjoyable any time of day, month, or year. It’s typically what I’ll pop open for my homies after a long night of drinking a few bottles. Still, even with its booming popularity, those that still hold traditional wine values in such high regard shun the idea of these wines being taken seriously, like most of the natural wine world. Most articles you read will refer to pét-nat as wine for the “cool kids”.

Pét-nat, for short, is natural wine to its core, where so many spontaneous elements contribute to the final product

I guess I consider myself one of those kids, for sure. Pét-nat is not a fad, it’s not some cool shit that will fade away in a few years. It is, in my opinion, the essence of wine. I’m just saying, before technology, all that was needed was what the earth provided. And those nomads were getting plenty drunk. 

My love for “untainted” wine is simply based on how I live and view life. I know where my food comes from, and in my home we make our food choices based on seasonality and what we should actually have access to. Most beautifully, it is an expression of a people, of a land, and of a period of time. For those reasons, I often find myself on an exploration for deeper comprehension of a bottle I’m drinking, which inevitably makes my drinking experience much more intimate. 

This is my process, and my journey is just beginning. There will always be something new and exciting in wine to tap into, no matter what you enjoy. So I sincerely hope by reading this, you are empowered to go on, continue, or reignite whatever journey you may be on. And if you love pét-nat like me, claim it unapologetically; who gives a fuck what Professor Champagne has to say?

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