In September of last year, during one of LA’s hottest weeks of the summer, I joined a group of people dressed in vibrantly patterned lightweight clothing and cheered when Marissa Ross stood on a chair and chugged from a bottle of fancy natural wine. We were on the beautiful front patio of Otium, a restaurant in DTLA that manages to feel like a pocket of serenity in a neighborhood that’s otherwise obnoxiously loud and congested with traffic.
The event was a wine tasting, where we all tried a series of natural wines curated by Ross, who has become a cool older sister figure of the natural wine scene in Los Angeles. Though I’d seen Ross around before, I hadn’t met her properly until this Otium tasting event, where my editor for this publication introduced us. Despite the personal connection, I was a little bit starstruck. Not because Ross was untouchable — her warm chatter actually put me immediately at ease — but because this was the woman who had helped me not be sick.
To start out, I want to clarify that I was never sick in the same sense as someone who suffers from acute or chronic diseases. Nor was I sick in the way that so many people are falling ill and dying during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was sick like someone who doesn’t know they’re lactose intolerant and continues to eat a lot of cheese, but can’t connect their vague, ever-present illness with the burrata salad they had for lunch.
When I was 25, red wine started making me sick. Not hangover-sick, but headache and dizzy nausea when I was actually drinking it. Not every red made me sick, but it happened enough times that despite loving red wine dearly, I reluctantly stopped drinking it altogether. For a while, I drank only white wine, and I was fine. My hangovers were very bad, worse than those of my friends, who had drank the same amount as me, but I attributed that to my own sleep-related issues and assumed I was also more dehydrated than them. My hangovers kept getting worse, though, and by the time I was 30 they were debilitating. They felt outsized when compared to the amount I drank. Also, embarrassingly, I started getting really, incredibly bad breath in the morning — enough to make me wonder if something was seriously wrong.
I was sick of feeling sick, but I loved wine too much to give it up. Because I’d had so many glasses that made me feel sick as I was drinking them, I could often identify a glass that would make me especially sick by it’s sick smell and toxic taste. Occasionally, I’d save myself from illness but sometimes I’d guess wrong and a wine that seemed innocuous would make me sick. Sometimes, I knew the wine would make me sick and I drank it anyway, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time.
I understood that my little wine sickness was not, in the grand scheme of the world or even my own small life, among the worst things that could happen. So much of life is a slog — hard deadlines, mean bosses, weak air conditioning, air pollution, discrimination, microaggressions, bad presidents — so small pleasures have always been, for me, the things that make the slog bearable, that add richness to life. Without them, life is like eating scrambled eggs without any salt. I believed I’d rather get sick on the eggs than not eat them at all.
My relationship with wine, which at that time was basically just a tempting poison to me, changed one Monday evening at a wine tasting at Silverlake Wine. I asked the wine seller pouring the tasting portions if I could try each before I had a full taste. I explained that I loved wine, but a lot of it made me sick, and I could generally tell by tasting it. Offhandedly, he told me I was probably allergic to sulfites, which I now believe isn’t exactly the case, but at the time it seemed extremely true and set me off on an internet research mission that ultimately brought me to Ross’s book, Wine. All the Time., which had just been published then in the summer of 2017.
The third chapter cracked open my world. Ross explained that commercial wine manufacturers use mechanical harvesting machines, which not only collect all the grapes in their path regardless of quality (unripe, unhealthy, and rotted grapes get harvested, too), but they also collect MOGs, materials other than grapes, which can include dead crushed animals like birds and foxes. She wrote about undisclosed chemical additives and toxic levels of arsenic found in some wines in 2015. “They were classified as ‘inorganic arsenics,’” Ross wrote, “meaning someone put them there.”
The next paragraph was like she’d held up a mirror and I saw myself in it: “Today, there can be dozens of chemicals in wine. There are no regulations in law to make companies tell you this… Our bodies aren’t built to handle all these chemicals and additives. Those gnarly ‘wine’ hangovers have nothing to do with wine… Our bodies also can’t process these chemicals and additives like they do natural ingredients. While carbs and sugar obviously aren’t the best for staying fit, if you’re active, your body will use them for energy. But your body can’t do anything with these chemicals and additives, so it stores them.” Fuck, I thought.
I devoured the rest of the book, and concentrated on shifting my drinking practices. I stopped feeling sick all the time. In the year and change since I read Wine. All the Time., I’ve worked hard on educating myself about natural, organic, and biodynamic wines, all of which live under the general umbrella of natural wines. Pre-COVID, I went to bars that stock natural wines and at weddings and art openings, where the wine is more likely to be commercial, I opt for cocktails or beer instead. Now, I’m educated enough that I don’t make myself sick anymore. Ross’ guiding ethos is to not be snobby about wine, but to take pleasure in it, which matches my temperament, so I’ve happily adopted it as my own.
For me, though, the greatest pleasure that’s come from my discovery of natural wine is that drinking it has been a huge part of learning how to take care of myself. The reason I took you step-by-step through my natural wine discovery process, the secret of this essay, is that all along, this has been a coming-of-age story. At the same time I was learning about natural wine, I was working with my therapist to get to the core of my issues around my self-worth.
The combination of examining my underlying emotional impulses and shifting my consumption habits helped me to realize that the reason I kept drinking wine even though it made me ill was because I believed I deserved to be sick. Blown up into a metaphor, I fatalistically believed I had two choices in life: give up all pleasure and be well or get to have some pleasure and be sick. Each option was a recipe for unhappiness, so every day I felt like I was picking between two bad versions of living and that I had no other choice, no good version. At my core, I believed I was sick because I deserved it.
Switching to natural wine alone wouldn’t have magically cured my low self-worth (and of course I’m not “cured” now, I just manage the fatalistic impulses better), but it gave me a vehicle I could use to practice caring for myself, and a framework to experiment with the idea that I could have what I wanted and not be punished in the process.
When Ross started writing about wine, it was mostly humor writing, treating $4 bottles of gas station wine like $200 bottles from the Loire. At the end of each review she’d do something called the “Ross Test,” seeing if the wine was chuggable by, you know, chugging it. Even though Ross has shifted humor into wit for her reviews as the Wine Editor at Bon Appetit — a post she held from 2016-2020 — she kept the Ross Test as part of her world.
The Otium tasting wasn’t a raucous affair, and when Ross climbed on that chair to Ross Test one of the wines, she wasn’t swinging from the chandelier. Maturing isn’t about giving up the things that gave you pleasure when you were younger; it’s not about putting aside playfulness in favor of peace. Maturing is about realizing you don’t have to be punished when you take pleasure out of life. We can have wine that doesn’t make us sick and chug it, too.
For anyone else who read the quotes I included from Wine. All the Time. and felt seen, you can get started on your own natural wine journey by getting a copy of the book here. Otium is currently closed, but I’m excited for a future in which we can drink on their patio together.