A Master Sommelier's Brave New Winemaking


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.

Joining Evening Land Vineyards not only is returning me to a circle of friends but also, surprisingly, is freeing me to do a little more of what I began loving in my childhood: cooking and writing, in addition to making wine. I had an exposure to the culinary arts from my mother, who grew up on a farm in Transylvania, and from my father, whose grandparents were bakers and whose mother had a fruit shop in Vienna. I learned how to bake and make classic French sauces—Romanian and Austrian dishes, too—from the time I could just peer over the top of the stove (and I even needed to stand on a stepstool to help stir the pot).


Courtesy of Evening Land Vineyards

Julia Child on TV, the characters John Steed and Emma Peel of The Avengers, and various scenes in the early James Bond films inspired me to explore wine tasting around this early time of culinary exploration. They emboldened me to try blind tastings of the wines my parents were drinking at home, and to my surprise, with a little studying, I could identify the flavors of the different grape varieties and even where the wines came from. By the time I was 15 I began to make wine in the storage area of the apartment building we lived in. I even produced "whiskey" in a school lab, experimenting with a technique I thought I had invented, but which I discovered much later is known as "boisé," designed to make a young spirit taste and look much older. This meant making a slurry of alcohol and toasted oak chips, heating it, and adding the infusion to the rest of the whiskey. (My career as a bootlegger was unfortunately cut short by a teaching assistant, who drank it.)

It wasn't until I was writing my doctoral dissertation in comparative literature that it occurred to a friend of mine that I could possibly get a job as a sommelier. He was another scholar whose area of expertise was Medieval German Troubadour Poetry of the 12th Century, meaning that he was employed as a bartender on the Seattle waterfront. He knew of a position that he believed would help me finish my dissertation without becoming impoverished. Fortunately for him, he shortly thereafter went to work writing award-winning user manuals for the nascent Microsoft and has since retired on his modest fortune of stock options. Fortunately for me, I never did get to finish my dissertation (on Nietzsche and Post-Modern French Literary Criticism) and have yet to retire. Instead, I was launched upon this wonderful journey in wine.

So, decades later, I have left Rubicon Estate and have become the president of Evening Land Vineyards—and over the next few months you will be able to read about such diverse topics as wine tastings, corks versus screwcaps, kegs and other fads, terroir, wine in restaurants and the craft of the sommelier, winemakers, wine estates, and wine-lovers.