If one had to guess, based on her enthusiasm and knowledge, it would be a quick jump to assume that Maja Roy grew up in a winemaker’s family. Surely her childhood was spent running carefree through her family’s vineyards while also learning about fermentation and bottling regulations.
But, that would be an incorrect assumption because it was an entirely different journey that brought Maja from a casual wine drinker to a sommelier who’s deeply passionate about teaching others about organic and natural wines.
“For me, wine wasn’t a part of my upbringing. It happened because of my mom’s sickness. She got cancer, and when she became super sick, we - my sister, father, and me - started to look at how to provide the best, nutrient-rich food for her. We started to educate ourselves on what’s in our food,” says Maja. “Through those farmers we met a lot of winemakers, and I started to taste their wines. It was a different experience. It was out-of-body, like a calling. I needed to tell the world what this is. It was important to me, for my career and my life.”
Maja’s life was on a different trajectory. She was a geography major writing a thesis on off-shore gas terminals, but she took a chance on her newfound passion and took that sharp turn in another direction with confidence. Maja started researching organic winemakers in Slovenia, her native country, and dove right into the nitty gritty of studying soil, vines, and the entire physical and intentional process behind conscience winemaking. She went on to earn certification through The Court of Master Sommeliers in Atlanta and started working with restaurants and winemakers across the US and Europe.
Now her goal is to teach others what she’s learned, saying, “If people care about their bodies and want to eat healthy and make educated choices, it’s important to make choices on what they drink too.”
Maja is careful with her language because the proper terms matter, and she’s quick to dispel the term “clean”.
“It means nothing. Because we like to use those words now to sell things, we throw them around. Some people in the US took advantage of that, but ‘clean wine’ has no certification and is made in big amounts. Those wines are still full of chemicals,” she says. “My goal is to help people understand the difference between these things.”
This is the starting point for learning about chemical and pesticide-free wines. To make an organic wine, makers don’t use any artificial chemicals or pesticides in the soil or in the fermentation process. All ingredients from planting and harvesting to production and bottling are certified organic.
Centered around holistic farming, biodynamic winemaking means that nothing is brought to the farm and nothing is taken away from the farm. For example, all the fertilizers are from their cows’ manure. All the sprays are tinctures made from chamomile, oak bark, and other herbs grown on the same land. Waste is composted and used in the soil year after year. These farms are small, and with no machinery allowed, all the grapes are hand-harvested. The only sulfites present in the wine are the natural byproducts of fermentation. The primary goal of biodynamic winemakers is not to cure disease but rather prevent disease in the vine by boosting the plant’s immune system.
In a complete “hands-off approach,” natural winemakers let grapes express themselves and only use natural yeast to aid in fermentation. There are also no additives or preservatives, which means the end product is a unique batch that won’t be replicated.
“Natural winemakers do not control a large amount of land. They don’t sell to grocery stores because they don’t have the supply,” says Maja. “They are so unique that once you drink the bottle, it’s gone forever.”
Simply switching from a commercial wine to an organic label means opting out of the artificial additives you don’t even know you’re consuming.
“In the US alone, [commercial winemakers] can use 250 additives to wine without listing them on the bottle. We have no idea what we’re drinking,” says Maja. “We have some beautiful idea of drinking wine from grapes that have been stomped on in Europe, but that’s not true. We’re drinking chemicals.”
Maya started her business, Wine Forte, to teach others - from other casual wine drinkers at home parties to restaurateurs and hoteliers - about organic, biodynamic, and natural wines. When European travel reopens, she’ll resume taking groups overseas on culinary and wine retreats. In the meantime, she teaches interested parties over Zoom and organizes learning sessions for area businesses in the hospitality industry. Maja also recommends visiting local specialty wine shops, such as Ashe’s, McScrooge’s, and Corks, to name a few, and asking for help.
“We have beautiful places in Knoxville with people who are knowledgeable about these wines, and they don’t have to be expensive,” she says. “You can find a nice bottle of wine for $15 to $20.
“The goal here is to help consumers drink consciously-made wines and encourage these winemakers to keep making their products,” she continues. “It’s not about feeling bad or guilty. We don’t want to make people feel like they are doing something wrong. We just want to show how this can be done differently. It’s about people sitting down and taking time for food, friends, and family, and also caring about what’s in the bottle.”
Learn more at WineForte.com.