This article was published in SlowWine on 3rd July 2018.
The woman making America drink great wine again
Marissa A.Ross is the author of the book Wine. All the time. The casual guide to Confident Drinking and of the very popular blog Wine. All the Time. Editor of Bon Appétit’s wine section, she’s been writing for Saveur, Elle, Man Repeller, Pitchfork, Vice Munchies. Marissa also co-owns and presents the hilarious Natural Disasters podcast, along with California based winemaker Adam Vouryoulis, and has gathered quite a following on her Instagram account, where she tells her stories to more than 40.000 followers. She’s currently based in Los Angeles.
I had the chance to meet Marissa last year, while she was in Umbria, following the invitation of SelectioNaturel’s Matt Mollo (also the American importer for the Perugia based Vini Conestabile della Staffa winery) and of distributor Amy Atwood. We hit off straight away: I love people like Marissa, open, always with a smile on her face, and ready to fight for the things she believes in. I was completely taken with her irresistible irony, something that’s not easily found in the food and wine world, where people sometimes tend to take themselves too seriously.
After that time in Umbria we met again last April while visiting the natural wine fairs taking place during Vinitaly. Here’s how the schedule looked: Vini Veri for Friday, VinNatur on Saturday, C’era una Volta on Sunday and Boom! Three full days of alcoholic merry-go-rounds, meetings, fun times and wines: both the good kind and the less so. On my way back to the Venice airport, I managed to interview her: I really wanted to get Italy to know this amazing woman who manages to speak about wine in a way that is so passionate and original and to also gather such a cult following among young Americans.
Ah, about to forget, for Marissa there are no excuses: she only drinks and writes about natural wines. She supports the small local producers making wine with minimum intervention in their wineries, and she also endorses the importers, distributors and wine shops that encourage and promote this type of wine to aficionados.
How did you embark on this adventure, Marissa?
I never thought of writing about wine for a living, I was pursuing a comedian career, I wanted to write for television and act. I just started writing about wine for fun and created my “Wine Time” Blog in 2012, while doing funny videos presenting wines online. I was literally just doing it for the fun of it, nobody was following me, I might’ve gotten around 14 blog visits a month, and even those were probably there for my sake. At that moment I was working 3 jobs in L.A. and writing about wine was the only instance where I could be by myself, it was a way of escaping the daily routine, and a way of travelling as well, in a sense. I didn’t have any money to go travelling, think that up until a few years ago I had never been to Europe. But when I would sit with a bottle of wine, writing, I was able to travel anywhere in the world, just close my eyes and go to places I’ve never been to before. I could actually taste and smell those places, which was an amazing thing, apart from the fact that this was simply me-time. Then, in 2015, the New York Magazine wrote a profile on me in the Grub Street food section, something that, at the time being, didn’t actually come off as very important to me. I was so focused on getting work as a comedian on television, hoping that eventually, something would come through, even though it actually never did.
- How did the New York Magazine discover you?
I actually don’t know how they found me, I think the journalist must’ve stumbled into one of my wine videos on the internet. Then, once this profile was published, my inbox basically exploded with e-mails! Publishers and agents were asking me to write a book on wine, which wasn’t something I thought I could do, actually, having no diploma, being no sommelier and having never worked in the industry, so I didn’t really feel up to the task. My husband was very supportive of this, though, advising me to go down this road, which was exactly what I did; I wrote my first book proposal and with my last 1000$ put aside I flew to New York to sell it, and eventually did so in June 2016. Six months later I was working for Bon Appétit.
- When did you start drinking natural wine?
In 2013, when I was still drinking like really bad wines, Cory Catwright, the co-founder of Selection Massale, a natural wine importer in America (mainly of french ones) who was following me on Twitter, invited me to one of her wine tastings in a shop in LA. The wines that I got to taste there were absolutely amazing, I’d never tasted anything similar in my life, my mind just exploded. These wines were around 10-15$ each and were so good and so I was so happy because at the time being I had no money to buy expensive wines. So I became obsessed with this shop, Domaine LA, not knowing at first that they were natural wines: what I knew was that I liked them a lot and that they cost less than 15$. Once I found out that they were natural wines and understood the meaning of that, it became even more important to focus on them, because not only did I enjoy them but they were also good for the environment, for consumers and for small producers.
- Did you ever study wine?
I never had any actual studies on wine, I’m self-taught: even before I started writing the book, I used to always go and buy wine and ask about what was new, what was interesting and once I’d get home with that bottle, I’d start researching: the type of wine, the method of making it, and so on, I’d go searching on the internet. So reading, reading continuously as I keep on doing nowadays as well since there are always new things to learn about wine. So I basically trained myself throughout a consistent online search for answers.
- What was the first Italian wine you ever drank?
Il Masieri di Angelino Maule was the first Italian natural wine I had while in Italy, in 2014, and I remember thinking just mamma mia, how good and interesting and different from all the other Italian wines I had in the United States up to that point. During that time in LA, I could only find structured wines like Barolo or Barbera or some sort of terrible Pinot Grigio, at times sweet, commercial and standard. Once I got back to LA though I started looking for natural wines but they were difficult to find, even nowadays their distribution is inferior to that of French wines. I’m talking about that part of California where I’m based and where there’s a growing interest in natural wines
Do you consider yourself an influencer?
(Hesitating) Maybe, in a way… I feel like I’m “influencing” something, or at least I hope so, in the right way, or at least I’m trying. Even though it’s kind of hard for me to grasp this “influencer” concept because I’m mostly at home by myself, writing about wine or just doing something that I, later on, send into the world, but it’s not like I’m really out there following what’s going on, I’m pretty blindsided from this point of view. I’m noticing how there’s an incredible growing interest in natural wine, but that has definitely little to do with me. I hope that in some way I am helping it become more popular and that I’m also educating some people. However, the mere fact that it’s becoming a lot more common knowledge in LA is a good sign.
- To what do you attribute this growing interest in natural wine in LA?
The wine importers are extremely important, just like the shops and the distributors, but a lot depends on the fact that there are more new small importers nowadays. I work for Bon Appetit, but, in a certain way I also work for the importers, distributors and wine shops, in this precise order. It’s so difficult, especially for natural wines, to travel so far to LA, without any added sulphites. It’s a really long trip so winemakers need to be extra careful to produce them in such a way that these wines arrive there in good shape, and ready to be sold. So the growth is the result of a variety of factors and people: from producers to importers and distributors. And to get back to your previous question and develop on that, yes, I believe I had a small contribution to that. I can tell consumers: “Hey, these are my favourite importers, go to that shop and search for that importer, for that winemaker or for that wine in particular”. Stuff that otherwise even careful and curious clients wouldn’t know about. But I think it’s the result of collective work, we all need one another in order to make this work and make this interest grow. After all, I wouldn’t even have a job if it weren’t for all the winemakers, importers or shops, just like they would probably sell fewer wines without me, so it’s something we all work together for.
- What do you do for Bon Appétit?
They came to me telling me they loved my writing style and that alone was a great honour for me, as Bon Appetit is one of my favourite online magazines, I have tons of respect for my boss and all the other people working for this magazine. They offered me a job to write about wine, working on at least 3 articles a month, one for the printed magazine and all the others online.
I’m a perfectionist, so writing about wine is something that goes beyond just smelling and recognizing flowery or fruity notes, or noticing the ordinary ones anyway; my writing style is a lot more personal, a lot more emotional and so, I’ll probably never be on the same page with someone who tastes wine in a classic way, but that doesn’t really matter to me. At times I’m too long-winded and I probably shouldn’t be. Bon Appétit is for everyday consumers, not just for wine aficionados, so the readers are not necessarily wine connoisseurs, so maybe they’re not willing to go into such depths, reading about carbonic macerations or stuff like that. So I probably should think more about what readers want and write in such a way that it becomes interesting for as many people as possible, just like my editor suggests. Anyway, we end up reaching a compromise every time we discuss subjects. The only thing I will not compromise about is wine, and that it’s always going to be natural wine. Every now and then we debate on the matter, there are times when I should be writing things I don’t feel like writing, but at the end of the day all that matters to me is that I manage to get to introduce a good bottle of wine to people and get them interested in natural wine.
What are your thoughts on women in the wine industry?
I think there’s a growing interest among women and this makes me happy, but it’s quite difficult. I don’t think women are very respected in the wine world, I mean in some ways, yes, but in many other no. Even though I’ve written a 300-page book, I’m writing for a national magazine, there are still men who react to that with a “Aw, that’s so cute”. So cute?! You’d never say such a thing to a man who’s written a book! It’s difficult for me and I think there are times when men don’t want to accept the presence of women and when there’s a lack of respect. But this is a very important work to do and it’s really beautiful to see women getting involved, I think we should all be working together to be more supportive of each other and stand united. This is another tricky thing, that there are so few women and so many men that women tend to get competitive at times because they tend to believe there’s enough space only for one when we should be supporting each other instead. I think it’s truly important that women do things and become powerful together.
- Did you receive any critics?
Sure, a lot of the. There are people who simply don’t dig the way I write, which is completely fine. But the grand part of the comments I tend to get are related to the way I look, the way I dress, the kind of make-up I use, the way I talk and stuff like that. It gets difficult at times. Think that once I received an award, named among the 100 women in America doing things differently and this guy comes to me telling me I got that award simply because I chat about wine and I look good in a bathing suit. I told him that this is actually my job to which he replied, “ Oh, you don’t know how to take a joke, you’re taking stuff too seriously, you’re overreacting!” Why even say that, why try to take me down and to undervalue me, why try to make it seem like anything other than what it was? I’m sick of this, it’s a really weird feeling and I’m still struggling to understand how to stay above all of this. On the one hand, I don’t care what people say about me, I know I’m doing my best for the winemakers and importers that know me and respect me, just like I respect them, so I’m not interested in what some random stranger thinks, says or does.
- Do you know Alice Feiring and Isabelle Lageron of Raw Wine Festival?
I have but only respect for these ladies, they’re very strong-minded and stick to their principles and are not afraid to make their voices heard when it comes to natural wine. I always looked up to them, just like I do with Amy Atwood, wine distributor and a strong, determined lady, just like Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & Francois Selection. All of these women are very determined and have a clear idea of wine and of what they want to do with it, without compromising. These are women I look up to and to whom I am very grateful for supporting me. Amy was the one to take me under her wing and introduced a lot of wines to me, she took me to France with Jenny, to visit winemakers. There were times when, after a wine tasting event she would pass by my place to give me some bottles of wine so I could taste them, too. This meant so much to me as I didn’t have enough money to buy wine, a thing that I always did and keep on doing so as I can keep my writing honest. Amy and Jenny are great friends of Alice and Isabelle, it’s become a community of strong, determined women who support each other. I still recall the nervousness before gathering the courage to write Alice an email, asking her some information about Georgian wines; she’s an expert of those, so I was so glad when I got her reply and she was so open and available, answering all my questions and being so openly supportive of me. This is very important to me, I love women who are open and willing to give in such a way.
- What does natural wine mean to you?
Not having a specific definition classifying these wines, I present them in America as wines made without adding and without removing anything from them, just the wine as it should be: without adding or removing anything from the vineyard to the wine cellar. I know it’s hard as they change continuously, right now I have 5 bottles with me that I hope will still be good once I get to LA, but they could, however, change until then, and this is why I never write negative reviews about wines. I’m not against the use of as little sulphites as possible during the bottling phase, so as to make the wine more stable and allow it to make this journey all the way to the States, and especially to California, that’s very far away. It’s not helping anyone if a client receives a bad wine that could’ve been saved from turning bad with a teeny tiny dose of sulphites. As for the rest, I am totally against anything being added or removed from the wine. Natural wine needs to stay true to its land, to its grapes and it needs to reflect the makers’ honesty.
- Do you believe in Terroir? Do you think natural wine can be made even in areas that are not adapted?
I am a firm believer in terroir and I think it’s one of the essential factors in producing good wine, but I also think there’s the possibility of producing wines in unexpected places where there might be less known terroirs. I think there are endless possibilities for producing wine as long as the people doing it have their hearts in it, do it with respect and don’t try to exacerbate it. Take the Slovakian wines I was talking about yesterday: I had no idea they produced wine in Slovakia, we tasted them and they were amazing, such a cohesive taste and so many interesting features. So yes, I definitely think you can make wine in lesser-known areas, the main thing is that you do it respecting the land and the grapes.
- What’s your forecast for the natural wine scene in the next few years?
It’s going to be really interesting for the next couple of years, seeing this evolution, as natural wine is going to become a lot more popular and trendy. It will be important to educate the consumer so that it’s clear that this isn’t just a generational trend, but more of a lifestyle. I think the next two years are going to be tricky for the winemakers, because there’s this feeling that it’s becoming just a trend, so it’s also my duty to prove the contrary. I hope that my job will still be all about promoting these wines, educating and getting people to understand that this isn’t a fad. This is one of the reasons I actually don’t like the term “Natural Wine” because it’s really, simply wine, and all wines should be made like this, without any added chemicals, harming both the environment and the consumer. To me, it’s really important that I refer to these wines not as natural ones, but simply as wines, as it should be. So I hope I will keep doing my job and write about wine, educate people and support winemakers, importers, distributors and shops, but who knows? You know?