The legend goes that Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships; a lesser known myth? Circa the early 2000s, there was a Johns Hopkins University pen handed out as a freebie at info sessions that may have launched a thousand careers; printed on the side of it was the following: “One extraordinary idea can change the world. What do you have in mind?”
At the very least, this is true for Marian Leitner, the CEO and co-founder of Archer Roose. At age 18, the New York native came across said pen and was duly struck. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. I have so many ideas!’” she told us, laughing. But Leitner was really quite serious: After interning for the United Nations the summer after high school, she enrolled at Johns Hopkins, where she studied international development. After graduating just ahead of the stock market crash of 2009, Leitner took a job in finance to pay the bills (“It was never going to be my passion. I was always looking for a way out,”) while at the same time running an ambitious literary magazine called Explosion Proof (“A print-only magazine for millennials, which, yeah—it was completely counterintuitive.”). Her next move was to Washington DC to work for Gavi, a global initiative that helps deliver access to vaccines in developing countries.
Shortly thereafter, Leitner met her husband David, who had recently divested from Pheasant’s Tears in the republic of Georgia, a much-revered natural winery that he’d helped create and that is largely responsible for the preservation of ancient winemaking techniques from the region. It was over dinner one night that the idea for high-quality, sustainable boxed wine came up: “He was making fun of me for how much money I was spending on wine and I kind of shot back like, ‘You know, if only boxed wines were good, I’d be happy to serve that!’ And then he started talking about how when you buy a bottle of wine in the U.S. for less than $20, you are spending more on the shipping and packaging than the wine inside the bottle. And I looked around at the friends that were sitting at my table, and you know, everyone was wearing Warby Parker glasses, everything I buy is from Everlane, and I just thought that was crazy, that we’re paying all these hidden markups for something so fundamental to our existence.”
Thus, the seed for Archer Roose was planted. At the time, Leitner was working as the special assistant to the CEO of the Global Partnership for Education—“This was the career I’d been working toward since I was 18,” she told us. But between incessant travelling for work and her mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, Leitner couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t following what was important to her, and that she wasn’t an agent for social change in the same way she’d envisioned back when she held that JHU pen in her 18-year-old hands. And so last year, Marian and David officially set out to reimagine a product mostly known for its indispensable function in rousing games of Slap the Bag. They’ve created a brand dedicated to a sustainable, ethical—and most of all, delicious—wine that eliminates middleman markup to the consumer and tells the story of dedicated craftsmen that can often be overlooked in the mass market.
Marian sat down with Girlboss recently to talk more about building an industry-disrupter a la Warby Parker, how women were the OG beer experts, convincing people there’s a boxed-wine world beyond Franzia’s Sunset Blush, and learning to be a leader.
You mentioned companies like Warby Parker and Everlane and this idea of brand loyalty based on values, which is particularly prevalent among millennial consumers. How does this come into play with Archer Roose? Or to borrow one of your taglines, how are you “[punching] convention in the pantaloons”?
ell, I just kept coming back to this idea of boxed wine and how it was more environmentally friendly—80% less landfill, 60% less of a carbon footprint. It’s also good for 6 weeks after opening. But pouring wine from bottles is a fairly modern thing. You used to pour wine from a clay amphora or a barrel or a wine skin. The only wines that were bottled were ones that were meant to be bottle aged, which is a very small percentage of wine. So it wasn’t until the U.S. started importing European wine and congress started making regulations like the 750 ml bottle that there was this proliferation of wine in bottles. But that’s actually not the best format for young wine, and most of the wine that we drink, we consume within two hours of bringing it home [laughs]. And it’s generally only a couple of years old. So I just became really interested in this cross section where it could be better for the environment, it could improve the integrity of the wine you are drinking, and it could have added benefits to the consumer, like keeping it fresh longer—things like that.
We donate a percentage of our profits to helping rural entrepreneurs, which we see as helping fortify our supply chain. But I think one of the big and most interesting things to watch over the next few years is alternative format. Keg wine is growing extremely fast. You now see cans of wine popping up. The box is sort of like the barrel or keg that you can have in your house. It’s wine on demand. And another big trend to watch, I think, is going to be delivery. Most people go to their local wine store and that’s all they have to choose from.
I love that this whole thing came about because you were breaking the bank with your wine habit. I can totally relate to that. Classic story of Girl Meets Wine.
[laughs] I love that I am talking to Girlboss about this! Alcohol is a very male-dominated industry. So what’s fascinating is that women were the first fermenters, because men were the hunters, right? Women were in charge of the agriculture, and history supports that the first fermenters of beer and wine were most likely women. But then over the course of history, it was male winemakers that came to the forefront. Men dominate the distribution business and the retail business. But ultimately, it’s women who are the buyers of wine. So building a brand that was for our taste, that I felt was a brand that at least spoke to me, also became something that was really powerful.
Perceptions of wine and who wine drinkers are is definitely changing, but still, the overwhelming perception is that boxed wine = bad wine. How hard is it to overcome that stereotype?
It is definitely a challenge. We’re attacking it in a couple of different ways. One is through education and elevating the quality of wine that you’re drinking as your everyday wine. Another is through strategic partnerships. For example, we’ve partnered with Loft Opera, which is a popup opera company that takes over abandoned warehouse spaces in Bushwick. They do operas with a totally modern twist, and so suddenly Puccini begins to feel very relevant—well, maybe [laughs]. But we’re the only wine that’s served at these performances, so you are listening to opera and drinking boxed wine. We also partnered with the American Museum of Folk Art so at all of their gallery openings and big events, you’re getting served boxed wine. We’ve reached out the that under-30 charity circuit, so you might be in the Bowery Hotel, but once again, you’re sippin’ on wine that’s coming out of a box.
A lot of this is just about challenging your perception of what’s a suitable occasion for it. And frankly, the wine is dangerously delicious. It speaks for itself. So our primary focus has just been to create opportunities for people to try it, and to try and explain why we actually think this is the best format for the wine that we’re delivering to you.
I love this resurgence of the notion that drinking wine is supposed to be, y’know, fun.
Absolutely! Our tagline is “Splendory without snobbery.” And you know, I think there are stages. Looking at millennials and Gen X’ers, they’re coming at it with a fresh perspective. They were a part of the craft-beer revolution, and our vision is to sort of remove that snobbish, stand-off-ish culture around wine, and to get people interested in the craft, which I think links up with a lot of broader trends. So if you look big-picture at what’s happening in the alcohol industry, first of all, people are drinking more and more cocktails or craft beers. The other interesting thing is that for people under the age of 35, the majority are drinking wine in their homes as opposed to beer. There are so many options. It’s really a great time to be a consumer of booze! [laughs].
How do you find the winemakers you choose to work with?
Wine is an apprenticeship. There are a lot of really talented winemakers who will never get their chance to really make the wines that they want to make until they’re in their late 40s or early 50s. Our model is to go and find those really talented people who are proven, but who are still hungry for opportunity and are big believers in the organic or sustainability movement in wine. Before going to Chile [where the first three wines were made], we created a matrix that was about quality, price point, sustainability and approach. But of course, ultimately, it was about finding wines that, when we tasted it, made us go wow.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as CEO?
My biggest challenge, as like, a hyper Type A individual, is learning that when you’re in a startup, nothing can be perfect. And so you’re constantly making mistakes. We have this motto at Archer Roose, which is not at all sexy: How can we make the least costly mistakes possible?
The other thing is in that every [job] review I’ve ever had, attention to detail has never been my strong suit. But now, ultimately the buck stops with me. So you already feel like you’re being torn in lots of different directions, but I am also responsible for everybody who works for us. And it can suck. There are some mistakes that I’ve made that I know if I paid closer attention to detail, they wouldn’t have happened. But it’s something that I’m working on, and with so much skin in the game, you realize you have no choice. You just have to get better at it.
Third, as someone who is naturally enthusiastic, I have no problem going out and being excited about my product and communicating that. But it’s learning how to modulate your emotion in the day to day. Because there are going to be tough times. It is your job to always represent your brand and your product. So learning to provide an even keel for myself and my team is something every entrepreneur struggles with to a certain extent. And it’s been a particular challenge for me on this road.
Any advice for budding industry-disrupters?
First: Lean into the crazy! You are going to feel crazy for taking this leap, and just know that everybody feels like that. But there’s nothing like getting to make your own rules. Second: Keep in mind that there aren’t a ton of female founders. Use that to your advantage, in that you know you’re bringing a unique perspective to whatever it is you do, and that’s going to resonate with others. And lastly: Be thankful and grateful every day for your support system, because that and a glass of wine will get you through anything.
Order Archer Roose’s first series of wines from Chile through retailers on their website, and stay tuned for a direct-purchase option next year. If you’re in the Washignton DC, Maryland or Virginia area, keep an eye out for select restaurants that will have Arhcer Roose on tap!