21 June, 2022
I first came across Camilla Gjerde’s book »We Don’t Want Any Crap in Our Wine – The women behind the bottle« in a newsletter by Treat, a Berlin-Neukölln-based natural wine shop. They were announcing an event with Gjerde where she would be presenting her book that had come out in the autumn of the year 2021. I couldn’t make it to the event but ordered the book from Camilla’s website anyway. It’s an informative and beautiful book, introducing the reader to the following nine Austrian, French and Italian winemakers: Elena Pantaleoni (La Stoppa), Francesca and Margherita Padovani (Fonterenza), Jutta Ambrositsch, Alice Bouvot (Domaine de l’Octavin), Stefanie and Susanne Renner (Rennersistas), Catherine Hannoun (Domaine de la Loue), and Arianna Occhipinti. Each winemaker is portrayed in much detail, accompanied by brilliant photos taken by the photographer Cecilia Magnusson. This is »the first book focussing solely on women producers of natural wine«, so I was intrigued to find out more about Camilla and the making of this superb publication. We agreed on speaking on the phone in the morning of 27 May.
How are you?
I’m good. Trying to re-balance myself after a week in Seoul. Seoul was quite intense.
Yes, Seoul! My book has just been translated and published in Korean. That’s why I was there.
How did this come about? You wrote the book in English and then you sent a copy to someone, and then she or he said »We’d like to translate and publish it«?
Exactly. Hewon Shin was so impressed by the book and wanted it to be available for Koreans because in their country natural wine has become super trendy. Also, most Koreans don’t speak English that well, and she wanted everyone to be able to read it. She quit her job, translated it herself as she’s more or less bilingual, and then published the book through her new company n press.
Is that the first translation?
Yes. I got a question very early on from someone who wanted to translate it into German, but it sounded like that person wanted to, you know, get paid for doing it. I don’t have the means for that, it’s the publisher’s job. I also received a question from Vietnam as well, someone working at a wine importer and shop who would love to have it in Vietnamese. Let’s see!
Did you publish the English version yourself? I’m asking because the logo of the publishing house, Now What Publishing, is a folding bike. In the second photo that we can find in the book we can see you carrying an orange Brompton folding bike. By the way, I’ve got an orange Brompton folding bike as well!
Your guess is correct! Basically, I’ve just been using Instagram to sell the book. There are a quite a few places around the world which sell the book. They mention it in their newsletters and on their Instagram accounts. So it’s not just me trying to get it out there… It was a bit more easy in the UK and the US, countries that have English as their first language. There are quite a few bookshops specializing in cookbooks, books about wine and other drinks.
I came across your book in London, recently. I visited Noble Fine Liquor, a great wine shop on Broadway Market, in the East End. They have placed it on their counter!
Amazing! I will visit them during my UK tour in October. They bought a few books quite early on, in October of last year. And they just got a new shipment.
So, now, please tell me about your travels. You only used the train and your bikes, you and your photographer Cecilia?
Yes, no planes, sometimes a bus when there were no trains available. I had been in London, to study for my WSET diploma, and took the train to Hamburg to meet Cecilia who had come down from Stockholm. The first stop on our tour was Vienna which is very easy to reach by train. We first met Jutta Ambrositsch whose vineyards are on the outskirts of town, easy to reach by bike. After that we went to Gols in the Burgenland which is where the Rennersistas are based. We got off in Neusiedel am See and cycled along the Neusiedler See, just beautiful. The sun broke through, it was gorgeous. We went back to Vienna and then all the way down to Sicily, actually, to meet Arianna Occchipinti. We changed trains once, in Venice, and then arrived in Naples, which is where we had pizza and wine, of course. The night train took us to Sicily, we woke up in Catania. The following train would have brought us all the way up to Vittoria but it would’ve taken such a long time, I’ve done it before, that we decided to take the bus. And then we just cycled to Arianna from the from the bus station.
Did the cycling always go well? No flat tires?
No! But we had rain, in Sicily of all places. It actually rained like hell in Vienna as well but the hotel was near, so that was fine. My photographer, Cecilia, had said that she liked to cycle but, well, not as much as I do. She definitely doesn’t like to cycle when it’s raining. I don’t mind it at all. On our way to Arianna it started to rain, huge fat drops, but we made it before it all exploded. On our way back, in the evening, the small streets were flooded and slippery. Water was splashing around our tires, it was kind of cool, to be honest! So, yes, I think that was the most dramatic.
And the train rides? Did they all work out fine?
We had stayed in Arbois and then went up with the train to Port-Lesney where Catherine Hannoun of Domaine de la Loue lives. On our way back there was a strike. The French, they do love a good strike! So we had to go back to Arbois by bike. Such a lovely ride! It’s quite hilly, but it’s just, you know… It had rained while we were at Catherine’s but it had stopped when we cycled back, the sun came through, vineyards all over… it was fantastic. To go to Elena Pantaleoni’s domaine La Stoppa, we took the train to Piacenza, south of Milan. It’s an industrial kind of city and not really made for cycling, you just go by the side of the busy road. So, that was half of the trip. But then we took a turn into a smaller road, and all of a sudden it became all quiet, serene and beautiful and you start to see the hills, the Colli Piacentini at the western end of Emilia-Romagna. That’s what I love about traveling by bike. You really get a sense of where you are – in a totally different way compared to other means of transport. The only place we had to rent a car in was in Tuscany, because it’s so difficult to go to Montalcino – which is just crazy, imagining it’s so close to Florence. The bus we could have taken only goes twice a week or something!
Some winemakers you might have met before, some you saw for the first time, I imagine. What did you do when you arrived? The photographer took photos, that’s easy to understand, but what did you do? Did you record your conversation or made notes on paper? How did you manage to write your beautiful essays afterwards?
It varied a little bit, depending on whether I had, as you said, met the person before, or not. Most of them I had met before, either on a trip that I had made with my husband the summer before, a sort of preparation for the book, or at wine fairs. So most of the background information I had already with me anyway. These questions I didn’t have to ask. I simply made notes, while moving along with the winemaker, and then tried to compose the feature more or less immediately after the meeting – often whilst travelling to the next stop, another bonus when using trains.
Do you have a special notebook and pen that you’d like to use?
I always have the same type of notebook. It’s a Moleskine, one of those journalistic ones that you flip over. And I do like my Pilot pen. It’s a very thin one, a Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5.
Now to the questions you asked!
I basically just had one question for them. And that is why they do what they do. It’s all you need to ask. But most wine books aren’t about the why, they are about the how. The why though I find so much more interesting! The how changes all the time anyway, depending on the person, the vintage, trends… Most of the women I met were happy to speak about the reasons for making wine. It was all very easy, I have to say. It was easy to get in touch with them, and it was very easy to talk to them.
I’d like to speak about one winemaker in particular, Arianna Occhipinti. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any of her wines yet, but for you she’s someone quite special. To quote from your book’s preface: »… with my first sip of natural wine. It left me speechless, wit a happy smile on my face. This was back in 2008 and I had been recommended a bottle of Arianna Occhipinti’s Il Frappato at my local wine shop owned by the Norwegian state monopoly«. During my days as a music journalist I met a lot of my favourite artists, for example Pet Shop Boys and New Order. And, luckily, I was never disappointed. They were always as interesting and friendly and funny as I had hoped them to be. So what was it like for you, meeting Occhipinti?
It was special, since, referring to your quoting from my preface, her wines were the ones that had opened my eyes to the world of natural wine. I had been to her winery and vineyards before but she hadn’t been present then. I had sort of been warned by two different people that she was a bit difficult to get in touch with and also a bit difficult to relate to on a personal level.
Were you nervous when you met her?
I wasn’t nervous at all. Although all of the women I met are sort of stars in the world of natural wine, which, let’s admit, is a relatively small world, they are just people. Like you and me.
Like musicians. Like doctors. Like carpenters!
Exactly. And they almost always act that way, like they are normal people. It’s not like they act like superstars. I’m a political scientist, and in my previous life I used to work for the Swedish parliament, for their national audit office. My job was to interview people and then write reports about whether the government or their agencies had actually reached the goals that had been set out. We also gave advice on how to do things better. Some of the politicians I spoke to were quite high-ranking, former prime ministers, for example. But to me and everyone it was just a normal day on the job. It was nothing special. I then worked for the government in a similar position. It was quite a good practice for making this book. We weren’t always welcomed by the politicians and agencies we audited. Of course not. So I needed to create a good environment to work in, to get the interviewees to open up.
Did you get along well with Arianna Occhipinti?
I have to admit that I chose winemakers where I thought that I would also like them as person. When I met Ariana we ›clicked‹ immediately. I understood her, she understood me. I did not do any fan talk. If people tell you that kind of stuff, it puts a distance between them and you immediately.
I can relate to that. It’s really hard for a musician to say anything proper when you tell her or him that they are the greatest and that their latest album changed your life. Well, actually it’s usually their first album that changed your life… There’s really nothing they can say except for maybe »Thank you!« And so a conversation is off to a bad start already.
That kind of compliment just shuts it off. You actually made the situation a bit awkward, or even more awkward, by saying so. When I was in South Korea, I realized that a lot of Koreans were starstruck. By me! I learned that that was a very common, normal initial reaction for them. So, well, I just tried to treat everyone as normal people. And asked questions, trying to get to know them. One should be curious about the other person!
You are Norwegian but are living in Sweden. How come?
I met a man. And he was Swedish. So that’s why I moved to Sweden 20 years ago. The first years were a bit strange, because when you grow up in Norway, especially in the capital, Oslo, where I come from, nature is always very close. It’s not ›dramatic‹ nature, but you can easily go in the woods for a quick vacation. I had a hard time getting used to being in Stockholm. I think that the Swedish culture and its people are much more liberal and open-minded, compared to Norway. Norwegians are very direct, which I love, because I’m very direct myself. Swedes are a bit more consensual, and they like to, you know, not be so direct. So it was a bit of a struggle, initially, but life here, at least for me, is really better than what I would have had in Norway.
Promoting a book, or let’s just say any kind of product, is hard work. Does this take up all of your time now?
It actually is all and everything that I do right now. I’ve stopped working for the government.
My last question is one that relates to a set of questions I have been asking myself ever since I met Thomas Puéchavy, a winemaker from the Loire. I helped him at his harvest in September 2020 – I had just e-mailed him out of the blue, he hadn’t released any wine from his 2019 vintage yet –, became friends with him and have since visited him many times. Three times already this year and it’s only June. I’m going again in July. So the big question is, at least for me: Could I become a winemaker? Am I made for it? Should I give it a try? Leave Berlin, change my life completely, move to the Loire? A friend recently said to me that I should treat it all like a long-distance relationship. These relationships usually work best when they continue being long-distance relationships. It can all go downhill when you move together and share the same apartment… So maybe that’s the answer to my set of questions. Recently, though, I interviewed Romain Cole who has published a great book about winemakers, too. He used his series of interviews to learn about making wine and now… he is making wine! In Sicily. And Thomas, you know, he also interviewed winemakers, after he had decided to become a winemaker and leave his previous life as a musician. He didn’t publish them in any sort of way but they influenced him a lot. So… what’s it like for you?
The other week someone asked me why I wasn’t making wine in Malmö which is a town in the south of Sweden and which is where I’m living right now. Due to the climate crisis it has become much warmer here. Actually, there are quite a few vineyards here already. The wines I’ve tasted so far I didn’t really like. They didn’t do anything to me. It is possible to make wine here but great wine that moves you? I don’t know. I never really thought about making my own wine until that person asked me. Yes, all the encounters in regards to the book were really inspiring. And, yes, I really do love wine. And I also really love being outside. But I also know how hard the profession is. Physically, it’s very hard. It’s very hard! And even though I’m not ›old‹, I’m not getting any younger. I’m 50, more or less. I don’t know if it would be a good idea. Also because I know how hard it is to make a good wine. It’s very difficult making a good wine! I wouldn’t want to make any wine that I didn’t like. There are so many gorgeous wine growers and makers out there. I like to help them out. Help them during harvest. And that’s enough for me. I then just enjoy the fruits of their labour.
I’m 46 and have a good life in Berlin although the area in which my wife and me live, since 2005, the north of Neukölln, has become very loud and stressful. Also, I could’t just leave it all behind as my wife, she’s a jeweller, has a sweet, little shop in Mitte which could really only exist in a capital city, I think. And then, you know, I’ve seen how hard the work actually is, too. I’ve seen tools break and the tractor not working. I’ve pruned myself and have woken up at night with numb fingers, afraid they would stay like that forever. It’s a work that is very demanding and takes up a lot of time. A lot of time. But then it’s quite fulfilling, too! But then there’s hail, and rain, and frost, and sicknesses. I’ve seen the light in Thomas’s bedroom, at night, when a thunderstorm had reached the area in which his vineyard lies. And I know that he was busy thinking about the effects, the right moment for the next copper treatment and so on.
It must be such a different thing when you’re there, all the time, 365 days a year, having to face it all, dealing with a bad harvest – or none at all –, not using chemicals, for a reason, and so being exposed to nature much more strongly – and not just visiting. With the climate changing and becoming so much more extreme and unpredictable, working biodynamically really is the only solution. The vines need to be super super healthy. I’m not an expert, but from what I’ve seen, the winegrowers who work biodynamically get better grapes in difficult years.
Thank you so much for your time.
It was a pleasure. Thank you for making contact!