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Young Healdsburg winemaker jumps onto pétillant naturel trend

Kara Marie Groom spent four years hemisphere-hopping, living out of a suitcase while working six harvests on three continents.

The Healdsburg woman, 29, is dauntless as a winemaker, too, leaping into the popular world of natural wine with her pét-nat enterprise. Pét-nat is an abbreviation for “pétillant naturel,” a French term that roughly translates to “naturally sparkling.”

“I think there is such a trend towards natural wine and natural products in general,” Groom said. “To me, pét-nat is such a mascot for that trend, so it’s an easy way for a consumer to dive in, as well as a producer to test the waters of natural wine. … Each year I try to push the envelope a little more towards natural and, dare I say, trendy.”

Aside from being a festive drink, pét-nat sparklers are typically budget-savvy. Groom’s 2021 Pét Nat Project, Pétillant Naturel of Riesling is $20. She produced 240 cases in 2020 and upped to it 432 in 2021.

“I discovered the word ‘project’ was the perfect description of this wine,” Groom said. “It was a real experiment and very far from an exact science. Each bottle is a little different from the next.”

A broad catchphrase, pét-nat refers to almost any sparkling wine made in the ancestral method (méthode ancestral). This method calls for a bottle to be sealed before the initial fermentation has finished. The released carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, setting off a stream of bubbles and a kiss of sweetness thanks to the residual sugar that hasn’t been converted into alcohol.

“The first time I heard of pét-nat was in 2017 during my harvest in England at Nyetimber Winery in Sussex,” Groom said. “One of my harvest coworkers wanted to make an intern wine and suggested pét-nat. So during the night shift, we secretly pulled off a case worth of wine and capped it. It became our late-night party wine.”

While both produce bubbly, the ancestral method differs from the traditional method (méthode Champenoise). In the latter, wine goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle with added yeasts devouring sugars and creating carbon dioxide, transported via the bubbles.

Reared on méthode Champenoise, winemaker Daryl Groom, father and mentor, said he had never heard of pét-nat until his daughter wanted to make one.

“I had never tasted one until the project was underway,” he said. “So in my world it probably has no significance, but in Kara’s generation, I’m learning it has a bigger, growing significance. Kara began pushing me a little out of my comfort zone with winemaking, wanting to do things more natural, with less traditional winemaking additives. Kara has her own vision for her wines.”

Like a homing pigeon, Groom circled back to Sonoma County after working back-to- back harvests, with the first vintage of her namesake brand — Kara Marie (karamariewines.com) — in 2018. The traveler wanted a safe landing after accruing plenty of miles with stints in Australia at Peter Lehmann Wines and Oxford Landing Winery, in California at Thomas George and in England at Nyetimber Winery.

“I missed home and I was ready to settle down without counting down to the next plane flight,” Groom said. “Later that year, I made 100 cases of rosé.”

Today Groom makes four bottlings: rosé of grenache, dry riesling, nouveau of pinot noir and pét-nat riesling.

“My philosophy about wine is that it shouldn’t be uptight and snobby,” she said. “It’s made to be enjoyed. I try to illustrate this in my marketing. I don’t take myself or my wine too seriously. ... Just like I like to push the boundaries against my dad’s traditional winemaking, I also like to push the boundary around traditional wine marketing. I like to be a little cheeky.”

Kara, her father said, is a great role model for aspiring young winemakers who don’t want to take the typical three-year wine course.

“She learned on the job doing many harvests, getting her hands dirty, listening, watching, asking and doing,” he said. “She has shown she doesn’t need all the technical knowledge. Wine is about taste, feel, artistry.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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