The Fizz #25: Marreya Bailey, a soon-to-be California winemaker, is on the pursuit of knowledge
In this issue, Marreya and I speak about her experiences working with Pax Wines, Zafa Wines, and The Two Eighty Project what makes a positive internship experience.
For the 25th issue of The Fizz, I spoke to soon-to-be California winemaker and industry mover, Marreya Bailey. Marreya has had some incredible experiences as an intern and team member at several different wineries across the states, and she gave me her point of view on what makes a good internship experience, both for the intern and the winery. Marreya’s movements throughout the American wine industry have been solely in the pursuit of knowledge as she starts to work on her own upcoming wine project. Talking to her made clear her drive, passion for learning, and point of view.
In this interview, we spoke about her experiences in the wine industry, what she finds to be a good example of a positive internship setup, her advice to both interns and wineries as they start on working with new people around harvest time, and what her journey to becoming a winemaker has been like. We also spoke about her work with the TwoEighty project, and how she focuses on bringing more accessibility and opportunity for BIPOC in the wine industry.
Margot: Can you give me a sense of your wine history? I know you had a corporate job before jumping into wine—how did you find yourself pulled in that direction?
Marreya: I had been flirting with several different industries for the last eight years, really. I was in HR in the corporate world and working at wine shops and wine bars on the side. I was a wine buyer and a cheesemonger at one point. Along that line, I was also studying to become a sommelier, and I passed my CMS certified exam in 2019. I decided that I wanted to be able to help pair food and wine. It took a turn when I realized that I love nature, I loved art and science—I couldn’t see myself working for someone else for the rest of my life.
I wanted to dive into wine more and 2020 was an opportune time for me to focus on building my own businesses with Bathing Grapes and wine production, and learning how to become a vigneronne [a French word for winemaker and vinegrower]. That came about when I started researching about Deirdre Heeken of La Garagista and Martha Stoumen, who are both good friends of mine now.
Margot: It seems like you’re involved in many different projects, and have worked at several different wineries. What have those experiences been like?
Marreya: I got the opportunity to work with Martha during harvest last year, with six other winemakers. They have a winery co-op in Sebastapol, CA with some of the top names in natural wine in Northern California, and I immediately jumped on it. It was a wonderful learning opportunity. I wanted to learn about natural wine production and sustainable, responsible farming, and I really got to do that. They were very transparent and very supportive of my goals. It was super encouraging. Martha is phenomenal. She is a genuine teacher and willing to share her knowledge, invaluable advice on life, business, continued wine education (formally and informally) along with being this fierce, humbly confident, and amazing vigneronne, mother, entrepreneur, wife, badass boss lady, and beautiful soul. I enjoyed watching the balance and transition as she seemed to pivot so fluidly amongst them all with finesse, patience, and understanding when to laugh and have fun in life. I highly respect her for that.
Last year, I was there from August to mid-September. Prior to that, I resigned from my corporate job. It was scary. The wine industry is highly competitive, so thank God I had savings. After diving into harvest out here, I knew I was exactly in the right place. I was here at a time when it was so wild, everyone kept saying “this is not the textbook harvest” with all of the wildfires, but I’m glad I was there for that. They were teaching us, trying to clarify to us, why specific things are done in order not to waste grapes. All of them were very sustainability focused.
Margot: That’s so good to hear. I feel like everyone I’ve ever spoken to who has worked with those folks has had a really great experience. What came next for you?
Marreya: In early September I happened to see that Zafa Wines was hiring harvest interns. That was an interesting journey. Krista Scruggs was also someone I looked up to earlier on, just like Martha. I saw someone that looks like me, out on the East Coast, producing natural low-intervention sparkling wines with hybrid grapes. For a few years, I had researched hybrid grapes and came across Deirdre and was really inspired—they were growing these “superhero” grapes that were going to salvage the wine industry. I’m very passionate about that.
I took a chance—I didn’t expect to get the internship. I actually applied for both harvest/vineyard intern and seasonal cellar hand positions. I didn't receive either of the roles. Instead, I received a created opportunity as a part-time seasonal cellar hand assistant. Within 24 hours, I jumped on it. This experience immediately became a rollercoaster learning journey. In approximately 2 weeks after beginning the harvest in Vermont, it quickly turned from a cellar hand assistant to a seasonal co-assistant winemaker role with the potential ability to also harvest approximately 30+ varieties of biodynamic-farmed hybrid grapes out in New Hampshire and apples in Vermont.
At that point, the responsibilities involved being in the production facility for approximately 90% processing all the harvest fruit (with a ratchet press and apple pulverizer), sanitizing, measuring the fruit chemistry, such as the Brix, pH, determining VA of both current and new wines and co-ferments, etc. I immersed myself completely in the cellar and whenever I was in the vineyard or orchard learning everything I could visually and hands-on about more wine production, apple varieties, hybrids, farming, including experimental co-fermented ciders. These became my sanctuaries.
The end of harvest took a tumultuous turn, involving an abrupt stop in wine production due to severe legal, unethical, and compliance issues leading to detrimental repercussions impacting ZAFA as a business, and some individual people—including myself. This moment involved me being placed in a very uncomfortable position no intern should ever have to directly experience and handle. I experienced a series of emotions rushing all at once. I was livid, confused, and frustrated over the fact an individual I saw as a shero, severely disappointed me due to their actions within their control.
However, I felt more driven and focused with adrenaline rushing through me. I was also optimistic because I saw this experience as an invaluable learning opportunity. I learned not only more about wine production, grapes, and farming like I expected, I also learned more about the business side of commercial wine production. The importance of abiding by all wine compliance and legal requirements, and truly understanding more about leading and operating a business in a more financially-responsible way—including placing people as a high priority, tapping into emotional intelligence more, and creating a nurturing healthy and positive work culture are some foundational elements to running a successful business. Since then, I’ve been taking time to focus on myself and continue manifesting my goals. I came out to California starting in April and have reconnected with friends in the wine industry, meeting winemakers, and I’ve been getting a lot of support.
Margot: Thanks for sharing that with me. It’s amazing to hear how you approached that situation with optimism, and I’m glad to hear you’ve moved on toward your goals. Where are those taking you now?
Marreya: I’ve been working together with Christopher Renfro of the Two Eighty Project, who is a phenomenal guy and friend. We both understood each other immediately when we met in person. The Two Eighty Project is a nonprofit organization with humble beginnings in reviving an urban Pinot Noir vineyard in San Francisco off the 280 Highway that has quickly transitioned to creating and promoting education involving bringing more accessibility in viticulture and wine production for BIPOC wine professionals and the overall community.
He spearheaded this partnership with Matthiasson Wines to create a BIPOC internship, and invited me to join. This is the first of its kind in the United States. It’s a pilot program to push and educate BIPOC who want to enter into wine production and viticulture. It’s part of our heritage, to learn about different kinds of responsible farming. A lot of the foundations came from our ancestors, and it’s a matter of us reconnecting with that and giving that accessibility. Steve Matthiasson was very supportive for all of that, and he’s there with us visiting all of these vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Counties. We’re learning about the farming and career paths that people can take in the wine industry. It’s very hands on learning. We have installed irrigation in a San Francisco vineyard, mulched and shoot thinned in Napa, learned the processes behind winery contracts, custom farming, labor practices and what it takes to start and financially manage a vineyard.
We’re also creating a grant through the Two Eighty project to give BIPOC the opportunity to produce their first small batch of wine. The two main issues with launching a wine label are production space and money. How can we support somebody that doesn’t have the means right now, but they have a lot of drive and talent? We’re working on that behind the scenes, and talking about launching a BIPOC winery co-op some time in the future. There are so many up and coming BIPOC wine producers out here we need to champion. There’s a lot of movement happening, and it’s a blessing that I’m here right now.
Margot: Wow, that’s super interesting. Why is it important for you to work on this grant?
Marreya: It’s very important for any kind of grant like this to exist because thriving BIPOC enterprise has been consistently missing for hundreds of years. Because of the infrastructure built hundreds of years ago, it has been very challenging for people of color to get into this industry, even though we have ultimately been the ones usually doing the manual labor behind the scenes. We came up with some of the foundational farming methods. It is part of leaving a legacy, opening another door for the future, another opportunity to access. We want to see an illustrious rainbow of experiences in the wine industry. We need to be able to give everyone the opportunity to have the financial freedom to follow their dreams. We shouldn’t have to rely on loans, either! We should be able to get the support of our community.
Margot: I saw on your Instagram that you made your own wine!
Marreya: Yes, I am in the process of launching my own wine label. I haven’t advertised it yet. That wine was a co-ferment. When I was out in Vermont, I was able to harvest some hybrid grapes in the New Hampshire vineyard, and I harvested Maréchal Foch, Petite Pearl, and made a co-ferment with that. I also made a 100% carbonic pét-nat Maréchal Foch—just a few bottles for me to practice. I made a field blend pét-nat and took a portion of that when it was still and made a co-fermented cider with Vermont apples. Specifically, Millennium, Keepsake, Northern Lights, and Winesap.
I also tried co-fermenting it with a pear field blend from Ohio, and with rambutan. I made them all in my parents’ basement and got my own ratchet press, measurement tools, the whole thing. [laughs] I bought carboys, demijohns, buckets, and just went to town. I took notes along the way and tracked everything. I nurtured them with music and allowed them to blossom into their own personalities. They’re living organisms! I’m excited to be able to express my creativity through my own wine brand.
Margot: Congratulations! That’s so exciting. When that wine brand comes out, where are those grapes coming from and where are you making the wine?
Marreya: I’m still confirming some things, but it will be in Sonoma County. The fruit will come from the West Coast, not just from California. It’ll involve producing natural wines from hybrid grapes and lesser-known vinifera, and co-fermented ciders. Not only California apple varieties, but pears, other flora. I want to make experimental wines, but also some of the bolder badass reds too.
Margot: I can’t wait to try them. What makes a positive internship experience for you?
Marreya: If the wine producer or the environment is very nurturing, open to constructive feedback, is willing to teach, that should be a good experience. They should be explaining why everything is happening—the punch downs, cleaning out tanks, why certain chemicals might be used. It should be a team oriented atmosphere with ongoing learning.
The harvest I’m working is with a producer that is going to be very supportive of me making my own wines and ciders on my own label. That support is not easy to find. A lot of these opportunities are not advertised on the wine producer’s website. People have to reach out to these producers and see if they’re hiring or taking on interns. Paid internships are a crucial matter in the wine industry. You can have people intern but it’s all about are they given a fair wage for the work they’ll be doing? Some will say that they can’t afford to hire—a lot of the natural winemakers I’ve spoken to want to ensure that they can pay their interns.
Many internships with the bigger wineries are more competitive, but there’s less hands on and transparent learning. You’re given less of an opportunity to ask questions and get clarification on why certain processes are being done. You have to be very selective with what exactly you want out of your internship.
Margot: Is there any advice you’d give winemakers starting to bring on interns, or vice versa, as harvest time is coming up?
Marreya: Give your interns space to learn and make a small batch of wine. Not all winemakers will give interns that opportunity. Some of them just don’t have the space. It’s like being given an exam at the end of the internship—based on all that you’ve learned, can you apply that learning to making, let’s say, a pét-nat or a nouveau? If winemakers can’t afford to pay their teams, there should be some kind of trade with the winemaker and the intern. It could be sharing grapes, connecting them to another career opportunity. Making sure it’s an abundant learning experience, they’re not being berated.
Margot: The bare minimum! [laughs]
Marreya: Yeah! Also, supplying lunch, supplying housing, that’s going to vary on where you go as an intern. At Pax, I had to look for my own housing, but they supplied most of the food throughout the day. When I was in Vermont, I had to buy my own food, but I didn’t have to worry about housing. Some harvest internships won’t offer either. If you’re driving a long way to commute, can they reimburse you for mileage? Those are all things to consider.
Margot: Where do you find the joy in the work that you’re doing?
Marreya: I love working with people. Wine is a people industry, a people business. It’s not just grapes. Continuously learning from people with a wide variety of backgrounds is really important to me. Connecting with and meeting people has opened a lot of doors for me. If you’re willing to get to know someone for who they are, you can really accomplish anything. The wine industry is not perfect, but out of all of the industries I’ve worked in, this is the most welcoming one. There’s a lot that needs to be done in the industry, but this has been the most supportive one I’ve been a part of.
You can support Marreya’s journey to becoming a winemaker by following her on Instagram and keeping up with her next steps. Marreya supports the non-profit The Two Eighty Project—donate to this important organization by Venmoing @christopher-renfro-2. If you’re looking for an internship in the wine industry or are a winemaker with internship opportunities, reach out to me. I’ll try and amplify your goals.
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