Marissa A. Ross Doesn't Talk About Wine The Way You're Supposed To & It's Changing The Whole Wine World

by Amy Atwood
Photo credit: Alice Baxley

Marissa A. Ross is a wine writer at Bon Appétit, author of Wine. All The Time.: A Casual Guide To Confident Drinking, and an Instagram wine star as well. Marissa and I have been friends and wine colleagues for a few years now. We've also traveled many times together, and had a lot of wild times on the road in France and Italy. Rule breaking was one of the things that drew me to Marissa. We’d both learned in the extremely male-dominated world of wine the importance of not giving a fuck, and Marissa was expressing that in the drastically different tack she was taking with the way that she was reviewing and covering wines, making it a lot more accessible. This was true with her Bon Appétit writing, definitely, but also on her Instagram account @marissaaross. (“Don't forget the A,” Marissa, who is also a comedian, jokes. “Don't forget the A.”) As a wine producer, wholesaler, and importer, I of course find her passionate coverage of natural wines especially inspiring.

For Bustle's Rule Breakers issue, I spoke to Marissa about her unconventional wine writing style, her even more unconventional writing process, and how she became the Rule Breaker she definitely is.

Amy Atwood: So, Rule Breaking Marissa: Wine writing and wine reviewing are worlds of mostly older men. Not only are you a younger woman, but you have such an off-the-cuff style that is not the classic style of wine reviewing. What has been the wine community’s reaction to you?

Marissa A. Ross: When I started writing about wine, no one read it. So, I got to be in my own little incubator: It didn't matter what I wrote; I could just write. Also, coming from comedy writing and writing about music, I never was like, “Oh, I should write about wine. That's what I want to do with my life.” I never read any wine writing. I just enjoyed [doing] it. So the first part of it was actually awesome. I got in the habit of doing whatever I wanted, [and] I just felt very free.

When it seemingly overnight became my career, I wasn't going to stop doing what I was doing because of what people thought. And what people thought was like, "What the fuck, who is this person?" Like, "Who does she think she is and why is she writing about wine this way?" And it's been hard, to be honest.

Photo credit: Alice Baxley

It's just a lot of criticism, over how I talk — whether that's because I cuss so much, or how I talk about wine — or it's about how I dress or how I look. Most of the criticism I receive is not even about my writing, it's about the fact that I'm a woman, pretty much. That I should be a certain way, and I'm not. It does hurt because I want to be judged on the merit of my work more than anything, but usually I'm judged on whatever dumb shit I put on Instagram that day. On the other hand, it just makes me put even more middle fingers up, because I'm like, “Alright, if it's upsetting you that much, me just being me, so be it.” Because [my writing] actually makes a lot of other people really happy, [too]. Even though I love talking about myself, it's kind of hard for me to sometimes articulate the impact I've had in my work.

People [do] come up to me and [are] like, "Your book changed my life and made me feel so empowered about wine, and I'm so into wine now, and I'm so excited to drink it, and thank you for speaking out about mental health." That feels great. I'm so happy that I've been able to empower other women to feel inspired in a field that they may never have been inspired in before. Everyone likes wine, but now people feel so confident and excited to drink it, to talk about it, and it's given them this sort of new hobby, and I love that. So, it's been hard, but most hard things are rewarding. Hopefully. Usually.

AA: So, this segways into the next question, which is something that you and I have talked about in the past as well: Do you ever have imposter syndrome, and when you do, how do you push past it?

MAR: I have imposter syndrome, all the time. I am such an outsider, and I wasn't necessarily welcomed by the wine community at first. You know, Amy, you were probably the first real wine professional who sought me out. You came to one of my events. Before any of the Bon Appétit or book things, or any of that shit, you were there, and you believed in me when most people were like, "Who the fuck does this person think she is?"

I just have to remind myself that I work my ass off, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I think that people think I just shit out these wine descriptions as if they’re really easy things for me to write. Even just a caption on my Instagram sometimes takes me an hour to write, 'cause I really care about it, and I want it to be great. I have to remind myself that I am here for a reason, and I earned my place, even if other people don't believe that.

AA: You say you’re an outsider, but would you want to be an “insider”?

MAR: I don't know. I like that my take is not the normal one. People would be like, "Well what wine books do you read?" And I'm like, "I don't read any wine books.” I mean sometimes, but not really. Because what made me successful is that I just did everything my own way. I don't want to spoil that. I drink and write about wine all fucking day; the last thing I want to do is read about it.

AA: I thought that it was interesting that you said earlier that when you first started your wine writing, you weren't really reading what else was out there, which I think is great, 'cause it allowed you to come with a total freshness.

MAR: I do think that I have changed the way that people think about wine. I wrote about how it made me feel. The same way I wrote about music and the same way that I write comedy. It's a feeling. And now, I think that that is such a big part of the modern wine movement. It's so much more about expressing feelings about wine than it is traditional tasting notes. I actually kind of think that I sort of started that, or maybe I was the first one to be successful doing it. I don't know.

AA: You and I both work within the natural wine world, which in and of itself is a rule-breaking genre. We're supporting and working with these really small production wine makers around the world that are making wines naturally.

MAR: And breaking all the rules, too.

AA: And totally breaking all the rules, too, exactly.

MAR: It's interesting because I feel like we're in a community of rule breakers, whether it's the producer who's not following the AOC regulations or doing any of the traditional varieties of their regions. You took a chance on so many natural winemakers here in California years before we really had a scene out here. I'm really, really fortunate that I found natural wine, and a group of rule breakers to break even more rules with.

AA: And so, what do you think is the rule people should break more often in the wine world?

MAR: I think that people should stop thinking so much about it. People now drink a glass of wine, and they want to say the right thing, and they want to talk about it in a certain way. It's weird, because now people want to talk about wine to me, how I talk about wine, and then they still are thinking too much about it. It's like, just enjoy it, and taste it, and smell it, and be present. Stop overthinking it, it's wine, it's made to be enjoyed.

You and I, Amy because it's our job, we kind of have to overthink wine, but most people don't have to. Overall, I just don't think that people should worry so much about it. Who cares what glassware you put it in? Who cares if it's at cellar temp? Who cares if you're drinking it, and you're having a good time?

AA: Which is what your book [is about]. It's got the wine knowledge and people can definitely learn a lot, and it will help them to be able to enjoy wine more. But it was also funny, and there were stories in there.

What’s your wine writing process like?

MAR: For me, music and wine are so interconnected. I would say a good fourth of the time it takes me to write a wine description is finding the right song. It's finding the song that fits with the wine, and the mood, and all of that. I have to have headphones on all the time because when I start writing about a wine and I find the song that fits it, I have to listen to the song over, and over, and over, and over again until I get the description right. And often times, it's the same specific verse or the same specific line in the song. It drives my husband bananas.

I think this is again why I am a very different wine writer. I don't approach it like I'm writing about a wine, I approach it more like I'm telling a story, and the soundtrack is [important].

Photo credit: Alice Baxley

AA: What's your favorite part about what you do?

MAR: My favorite part of what I do is when I am able to get lost in a glass of wine, and sometimes that happens from my house. You've seen how this goes down, Amy, where I literally, physically — if I love a glass of wine, I know it because I physically have to sit down, and I physically can't stop myself from writing about it.

For example, we were at a dinner party in France, and they pulled out that pétillant-naturel. I literally had to sit down on cold Spanish tiles in the middle of a fucking dinner party, in a corner by myself, just sitting on the floor, because this wine overtook me. I couldn't even keep it together. It was like, I have to go sit down and write about this right now and it doesn't matter what's going on around me.

When I care that much about a wine, it's like, I don't need headphones or anything, I'm so dialed into what's in the glass. I love that feeling. I live for that feeling. I live for those wines that just kind of grab me by the heart, or loins, or whatever it is that they're grabbing me by. It's magic. And it's the only time in my life that I feel absolute clarity, you know, where there's nothing else racing through my brain. I'm not worried about anything else, I'm not the anxious ball of mess that I normally am. It's just me and the wine in that moment and how it makes me feel and it's magical, just magical.

AA: What kind of role do the winemakers themselves, as opposed to the wine, play for you?

MAR: It's really interesting, 'cause, like, conventional wines are made to be a specific taste. They're going after typicity. They want a Sangiovese from Tuscany to taste exactly like a "Sangiovese from Tuscany" should taste like. And the role of a winemaker in natural wine is so huge, which is really interesting to me. I was so broke in my 20s. I had three day jobs. I couldn't afford to go anywhere. I would sit down with a bottle of wine and write about it, and often I would taste someone in the wine.

And I never realized how accurate I was at doing this until we were at Furlani last year and I wrote about one of their wines. I was writing down furiously that this wine was the most energetic, social butterfly, electric woman that you were just magnetized to. That you were obsessed with. That you were almost annoyed with her because she's so energetic, but you're like, "Oh my God, this is incredible." And then, Matteo Furlani's wife, Annalisa, comes in and it's her.

AA: It's totally her, it is totally her. Furlani Macerato is her 100 percent.

MAR: And I'm like, shit, I just wrote this little essay about this woman that I'm imagining in this glass of wine, and she's right fucking there. Now that I've had the opportunity to travel and now that I've had the experience of meeting so many different winemakers, you do taste the winemaker in the wine. They are so a part of it.

With the Furlani wines for example, they all have Annalisa's energy to them, but the way that they are made, they have Matteo, the winemaker's precision and focus. He has this very concentrated focus, and precision, and sharpness to him. It's like he takes her energy and wraps it up in his, or he molds it with his precise kind of focus, and vision. And I feel that with so many winemakers that we work with, and it's really interesting to me. Sometimes that does lead wines to be maybe more classical tasting, or other times they taste like totally fucking out there and bananas wild. But I do think there's so much of a winemaker in a wine, in the natural wine world, and it's really, really incredible.

AA: Is there a rule-breaking wine that you love and that you recommend to other people?

MAR: That's a really hard question. I think if I can recommend a rule-breaking wine to anyone, it's always going to be the Els Jelipins wines.

AA: Gloria.

MAR: Gloria. I posted something about it on my Instagram last night, and everyone's like, "$175 a bottle? What the fuck?" I'm like, "Wait a minute, though. This wine was made by a woman in Catalonia. She's my rule-breaking hero because when we were there, she was talking about how she only makes 2,000 bottles a year. And she said people come and visit her, and they say, "You need to make more wine, you need to make more wine.” And she's like, "No. I make 2,000 bottles a year because that's what I do to make myself happy. If I made any less, I'd be stressed. If I made any more, I'd be stressed. And you know what? This is what I do to make myself happy. And if you don't like it, go fuck yourself."

Those were her words. I was like, "Damn, Gloria." They're incredible wines, and just knowing there's a woman out there in Spain, like, "Fuck y'all, I'm doing me," it's awesome.

AA: So on the flip side, what's your least favorite thing about what you do?

MAR: My least favorite part of my job is having to write about Thanksgiving wines in August. For the print magazine, we have to start writing about, you know, big bold reds when it’s the hottest time in L.A. So I'm in my house, sweating my tits off, having to write about Mourvedre.

And also, how many different ways can you describe the same things? People are like, "You're using really weird language here." My editors at BA are like, "What the fuck are you talking about, ‘air-puffed violets?’" I'm like, "Don't question the air-puffed violets, alright? We need the air-puffed violets to get through this job. If I say it tastes like air-puffed violets, it tastes like air-puffed violets. You don't have to figure it out. Just feel it.” They're like, "No. You're high." And I'm like, "I wish."

AA: So, do you have a rule-breaking motto? Or words that you live by when you're out there breaking rules?

MAR: There's only one me. I am who I am, and I need to follow my guts. I've gotten this far by doing exactly what I want to do, so I'm gonna keep doing exactly what I want to do.

AA: And I guess that kind of goes into what I was just about to ask you for my final question: What advice would you have for other women, young or not, on how to be a successful rule breaker?

MAR: Just totally be yourself. You’re the only one that can do that. Every day I get followed by at least five new Instagram accounts, female wine bloggers who are kind of doing things that are similar to what I'm doing. Which is fine, 'cause I'm me, and no one [can] replace me. That's what I think some people forget. It's really easy to be like, "Oh, I want to have this career, and I wanna be like so-and-so."

I don't think that successful people get to where they're going because they're trying to emulate someone else. They get to where they're going because they follow their own instincts. That's a very specific skill, to be totally yourself. But I think that's the absolute most important way to succeed, and to succeed with happiness, and integrity, and fulfillment.

It'd be very easy for me to sell out and shill a bunch of conventional, bullshit wines. But that probably wouldn't make me very happy. And I do break rules, and I do get into trouble sometimes. It's not always fun. I don't like confrontation. But at the end of the day, I'm very proud of what I've done, and I don't have any regrets. And it's because I've always done exactly what I wanted to do, and no one else can do it like me. I hope that other women out there just remember that there's no one like you. No one can do it like you can. So, you should do what you do the best that you can, and know that no one can ever take that away from you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.