A Master Sommelier's Brave New Winemaking

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Courtesy of Evening Land Vineyards


Recently I began a new phase in my life, with a switch away from a personality with whom I was quite comfortably ensconced for over 16 years, first at Rubicon Restaurant in San Francisco and then at Rubicon Estate, a beautiful 130-year-old vineyard that had the reputation of having made some of the greatest wines in California. Leaving the company of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola was not a decision lightly made.

The inducement to leave took the form of a bold winemaking endeavor. In the coming months I will be writing for TheAtlantic.com about an adventure spanning two hemispheres and four wine-growing regions—the relatively unknown Evening Land Vineyards—as well as a number of other issues related to wine, including estates, events, controversial topics, and at times the colorful personalities behind the great wines.

The thing that made it clear to me that I had to join Evening Land Vineyards was an unexpected revelation. It was the taste of Summum Chardonnay 2008 from the Seven Springs Vineyard. I've been around the wine world a long time—so long that the first issue of Food Arts, published in 1988, reported my then-recent victory in Paris as the best sommelier in the world in French wines—and in advance I had decided that the Chardonnay would probably not be the most exciting part of the Evening Land tasting. Oregon has had a difficult time learning how to handle this grape, even though recently there have been a few good ones. Pinot Noir is where I expected quality. But the taste of the Summum Chardonnay was ethereal—fine, mineral, intense yet not heavy. It had a long, complex, filigreed finish that is rare outside of a Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne. I had never tasted anything like it from the New World. This wine was powerfully persuasive.

The Summum Chardonnay had a long, complex, filigreed finish that is rare outside of a Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne. I had never tasted anything like it from the New World. This wine was powerfully persuasive.

I soon became actively engaged in the Evening Land project, which is dedicated to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in exceptional sites defined by the four words Fire, Fog, Fossil, and Fracture. Our Seven Springs Vineyard in Oregon is defined by crystalline, volcanic basalt. On California's Sonoma Coast, we have a site where cool ocean fog protects the vines in summer. In the Santa Rita Hills, with its white earth—so chalky that it rivals the cliffs of Dover or the soil of Reims in Champagne—we have marine fossils that are so prized in the classic Cote d'Or of Burgundy. Finally, in Burgundy itself, we have vineyards formed of fractured sea beds, old soils that have also had a mix of fire, fog, and fossil in them, such as our property at Vergisson, where ancient volcanic rose quartz became submerged in oceans and covered in limestone.

Equally compelling are the partners in Evening Land Vineyards, including Dominique Lafon from Burgundy and two very loyal resident winemakers, Isabelle Meunier in Oregon and Christophe Vial at our winery in Beaune. Dominique is an acknowledged master of the winemaker's art. As a young sommelier I coveted the little allocation of Comte Lafon wines that I was granted, the first decade of them made by his father. Now I get to work with Dominique in a very adventurous business, rediscovering the vineyards of my own Pacific Northwest through his Burgundian eyes. And the founder of the company, Mark Tarlov, is a longtime friend and customer of my now-closed restaurant, Rubicon. In fact, I had been advising Mark as a friend when he first began to think of switching roles from wine consumer to wine producer. I helped him select the vineyards.

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Larry Stone became the first American to win the prestigious Grand Prix de Sopexa for the title of the Best International Sommelier in French Wines in Paris over 20 years ago. He is now the president of Evening Land Vineyards. More

Larry Stone became the first American to win the prestigious Grand Prix de Sopexa for the title of the Best International Sommelier in French Wines in Paris over 20 years ago. After winning this momentous title within a few months of becoming America’s 9th Master Sommelier, he continued as a restaurateur and sommelier, opening the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. He then became the sommelier of Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant from 1989 to 1993.

Wishing to be closer to vineyards again, Larry relocated to San Francisco to open Rubicon Restaurant with New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent and Chef Traci des Jardins. Partners with them were Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, and Francis Ford Coppola. There they established a restaurant with a wine program that attracted and trained some of the best young sommeliers in America. At the same time Larry started to make wines under the label of Sirita, named for his daughter.

In 2001, Larry became a board member of Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, and then in 2006 its general manager. Larry is currently a trustee of the James Beard Foundation, and he has served on the boards of the Kronos Quartet and the Court of Master Sommeliers. Recently, he moved to an exciting winery project called Evening Land Vineyards, which focuses on terroirs of fire, fog, fossil, and fracture. It manages vineyards and makes wines in distinctive vineyards in Oregon, Burgundy, Sonoma, and the Central Coast of California.

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