Meet Mary McAuley, Founder Of Ripe Life Wines

Mary McAuley was a health care professional before she pursued culinary school. She was a sommelier before she was a business owner. Drawing on her deep understanding of the environmental and production factors that influence flavor profiles, Mary flipped the industry on its head and started creating wine based on the foods she intended it to be paired with.

Today, her company Ripe Life Wines strives to produce the absolute highest quality single vineyard bottles at a price point palatable to the conscious consumer. We connected with Mary to hear more about how first fell in love with wine, her rigorous pursuit to be a sommelier, and the clambake where it all began.

Your story starts with a clambake, so of course we have to hear more! We’d love to hear about how you moved from a career in healthcare to wine production, from sommelier to entrepreneurship. We’d love to hear your start up story.

I have always had a serious love for cooking and entertaining, but this passion was only truly realized in my college years well after my “career path” aka major (Health Care Policy and Administration) was decided. There was one night we had people back to our house, and without anything to serve and I dug through our cabinets and whipped up “breaded shrimp” using Doritos crumbs and a mixture of random spices. They were such a hit I still use the recipe today!

Once I started working in restaurants, I fell even more in love with the art of food and wine pairing, so I went back to pursue another degree in wine studies and prepared for my sommelier exams.

As friends started applying to post-grad programs during my senior year, I started day-dreaming about culinary school, but it seemed so impulsive and unpractical to everyone (myself included) given the degree I had just worked so hard to obtain. So, I set off to work in the healthcare industry as planned and started a restaurant and food blog on the side to satiate my love of culinary arts. Well, four years and hundreds of posts later, I finally decided I couldn’t shake this attraction to food so I enrolled in a culinary school part-time. I quit my day job as soon as I a graduated and started working in restaurants for about a third of what I had been making. I knew it was right from the get-go. Once I started working in restaurants, I fell even more in love with the art of food and wine pairing, so I went back to pursue another degree in wine studies and prepared for my sommelier exams.

While going from the world of health care to the culinary world was considerably thought-out and planned, going from a sommelier to entrepreneur was sort of an accident. And, yes, it all started with a Clambake. Something many people don’t realize is that as soon as you become a wine expert or a sommelier, you suddenly become the “wine guru” to all your family and friends. Back in 2011, my friends and I were throwing one of our standard clambakes down at the Shore (I’m a Jersey Shore girl) and, per usual, I was tasked with selecting the wine for it. I couldn’t quite find exactly what I wanted and decided that next year I would make it myself. 

Today Ripe Life is flipping wine production on its head. As a sommelier, you are starting first with cuisine then crafting the very best wine to pair with it. What inspired this unique approach?

It’s easy to fall in love with wine for so many reasons—the science, the history, the culture—however, at the end of the day, when you’re selling it as a sommelier in a restaurant, you think about its practical application, which is the occasion and meal for which it is going to be consumed. When wine and food are paired correctly, one can make the other so much better, and it’s an exciting and rewarding challenge.

Those moments of connection are why I became so excited to start first with the cuisine and then work backwards to craft the perfect wine to pair with it. And in that pursuit of chasing a certain flavor profile, quality and nuance and perfection, I ended up making craft wine.

This artisanal approach definitely appeals to a niche consumer, the 21st century foodie who shops local, looks for responsible brands, and high quality ingredients. How are you balancing quality with a palatable price point?

I see the most traction in markets with buyers that understand affordable luxury—places that are typically elevating their food and drink offerings with better, more sustainable, local ingredients. Like a clam bar that’s making their sandwiches with bread from the artisanal bakery down the street, shellfish sourced at-bay, fried thoughtfully in quality oil. Those markets will pay a few extra bucks for quality.

If you’re looking for an affordable bottle that doesn’t compromise quality, look for a shop run by an owner who knows their stuff.

If it were easy to find value wine, then sommeliers wouldn’t have a job. If you’re looking for an affordable bottle that doesn’t compromise quality, look for a shop run by an owner who knows their stuff. I know about value regions from studying wine, so I do all my research to seek out those lesser-known regions to find vineyards that are off the beaten path and also growing incredible grapes, farmed with care and utilizing the best production methods—but they’re affordable because they’re not from a “fancy” region that people know of and will pay more for a bottle.

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What impact does traditional wine production have on the environment? I know we’d all love to feel a little less guilty about breaking open the next bottle, so tell us - is it generally a sustainable crop?

100%! One of the things that drew me to wine in the first place is the fact that wine is one of the cleanest and most sustainable commodities. The impact on the environment is minimal. You create better wine by using farming methods and techniques that are more sustainable, anyway, so the nature of the business naturally forces the hand of farmers to be sustainable and eco-friendly, which is awesome.

For example, a lot of our farmers control pests by way of owl houses, rather than harsh pesticides. Grapes also being made into wine are better when they struggle to grow so it’s not a common practice to “water” your vineyards too much unless there is a severe, severe drought. It’s also a very clean commodity in terms of human resources, too.

Ripe Life solely creates single vineyard craft wine. Why are you committed to batch production and how does this impact your final product? 

I am committed to single vineyard fruit simply because it keeps us accountable. I’m a big believer in terroir and merroir—I love being able to taste where something comes from. Terrior doesn’t have a perfect English translation but it basically means the “from-ness” of something. The fishing world has borrowed the term and dubbed it merrior as it related to seafood, and as the producer of “Clambake” wine I simply love it.

I believe the wine should speak to the vineyard and year from which it was harvested. It’s a very European mindset, which is why in Europe they name their wines by region, rather than grape varietal. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with a blend, but by staying single vineyard, I am saying that at the end of my project, I cannot add anything to it to fix it, which means I have to err on the side of making better wine over saving on cost or the whole project has to be scrapped. To that end, when I’m purchasing grapes, when I’m considering farming methods, deciding when to harvest, determining how to press the fruit, I am meticulous. 

When I’m purchasing grapes, when I’m considering farming methods, deciding when to harvest, determining how to press the fruit, I am meticulous.