California Wine country is filled with a lot of people like Mark Tarlov. He's a former Hollywood producer who's spent millions making the wine of his dreams, overpaying for real estate, hiring a high-profile wine consultant and pricing his top offerings in the triple-digit range.
But Tarlov's winery, Evening Land, isn't a movie-mogul vanity project. For one thing, the company doesn't make cult Cabernet, the wine that exmovie moguls tend to fetishize. Instead, Tarlov's boutique winery is a trans-Atlantic operation with a hyper-specific mission: to showcase Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy, Oregon and coastal California. Under the guidance of legendary Burgundy winemaker Dominique Lafon and a team of rising-star vintners, Evening Land wines are helping redefine the potential of these three top regions. And Tarlov is achieving this with affordable wines ($25) and expensive ones ($120). "I like making very special, hard-to-get wines, and widely available wines that over-deliver for the price," he says. "The middlemiddling success, middling failure, middling food, middling wineis something to be avoided."
At the same time, Tarlov has collaborated with some of America's greatest chefs to create custom blends for by-the-glass house wines. For Thomas Keller's Bouchon, for instance, Tarlov and his winemakers produced a Bordeaux-style blend that's perfect with the restaurant's braised short ribs with Bordelaise sauce. "By-the-glass wines are a great, underserved area," Tarlov says. "People go with a default pick: 'I'll have the Cabernet.' But why not have a by-the-glass Cabernetor a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnaythat has provenance and authenticity and craft, all the things that go into an expensive wine?"
"i was only moderately successful," Tarlov says of his two-decade film-producing career, which included three John Waters films and the modest 1995 hit Copycat, a Sigourney Weaver thriller. He adds, "But I was wildly overpaid." While filming on location, he'd seek out the smartest sommeliers and order their best bottles for meals with the cast. While shooting Copycat in San Francisco, Tarlov had innumerable lunches at Chez Panisse and dinners at Rubicon with then-sommelier Larry Stone (now the president of Evening Land). "You can become very popular in a restaurant if you show up with a per diem and movie stars," he says.
"I've never, ever, ever had a bad glass of wine with Mark. Ever," says Patricia Clarkson, a close friend who acted in two of his movies. "That is rare."
Tarlov took advantage of his Hollywood lifestylebig paychecks, lots of travelto feed his growing fascination with food and wine. While working in Europe, he dined at the Paris bistro L'Ami Louis twice a week for 10 weeks trying to get its roast-chicken recipe. "The chef finally admitted he basted it with three fats, like goose, duck or butter," Tarlov says, still triumphant at the get. "I needed to know: Why does it taste like this? Why do I like it so much? Why do people pay 60 euros for a roast chicken?"
Soon, Tarlov began approaching wine with the same analytical rigor. One night at New York City's now-shuttered Montrachet, he had a revelation: Comparing the wines of two great Burgundy producers, Henri Jayer and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), he realized they fine-tune their wines the way top chefs season their food. "Jayer's wines were 100 percent destemmed," Tarlov recalls, "while DRC used stems. I realized grape stems are like spices: When green, they aren't as delicious, but when ripeand added to a wine in balancethey can change the texture as well as the taste. That appealed to me."
So did terroir. A French word meaning "land," terroir refers to the effects of climate and soil on the quality of a wine. Particularly in Burgundy, better wines are thought to reflect the terroir where the grapes are grown, partly because the region's two primary grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are so sensitive to their surroundings. Tarlov became increasingly intrigued, and then obsessed, with the idea of capturing American terroir in wine.
So in 2004, when Tarlov and his wife sold their Manhattan apartment and began looking for vineyard property, he didn't buy just any pretty vineyard; he scoped out some of the country's best land for Pinot: Seven Springs in Oregon's Willamette Valley and the Occidental Vineyard on California's Sonoma Coast, a tiny, highly praised parcel on Tomales Bay.
Before making an offer on Occidental, Tarlov called Stone for advice. "I told him it was a great vineyard," Stone recalls, "but that he should be careful about the price, since yields could fluctuate so much. He didn't listen." At $650,000 for five acres, Tarlov thought he had a bargain. "To a New Yorker, that's cheaper than a studio apartment. But as an agricultural expense, it's insane." As Stone had warned, that first 2005 vintage produced only one barrel.
To turn the project around, Tarlov decided to recruit a Burgundian wine legend. "I knew American Pinot Noir had not yet had its Opus One moment," Tarlov says, referring to the winery established by Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux superstar Baron Philippe de Rothschild that helped establish Napa Cabernet's global reputation. "If I could find a Burgundian to endorse US Pinot Noir, I could present these wines with French credibility."
Through his sommelier friend Daniel Johnnes (formerly of Montrachet), Tarlov met Lafon, famous for producing stellar Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in Burgundy's Côte d'Or. At first, Lafon turned Tarlov's offer down; he had no interest in California. But Oregon intrigued him, and he agreed to consult if Tarlov could secure Seven Springs. So Tarlov wrote another giant check to lease the land, and Lafon signed on, bringing his old cellarmaster Christophe Vial and the promising young French-Canadian Isabelle Meunier to oversee Seven Springs. (Two years later, Lafon's Burgundy connections helped Tarlov purchase a winery in Beaune.)
Just as in Burgundy, Evening Land's wines come in four appellations, though they are coded by color instead of obscure French words. The Blue Label wines are the cheapest (around $25), seven in total from California, Oregon and Burgundy. The wines are noteworthy for their balance and strong regional qualities: the Oregon wines leaner and more restrained, the California bottlings more effusively fruit-rich. The Silver ($40), Gold ($60) and White ($120) labels each represent progressively more specific vineyard sites. The White Label Seven Springs Vineyard Summum Chardonnay comes from a patch of just 10 rows on the top of the hill, where the shallower volcanic soil makes the wine arrestingly minerally, enduring and bright.
At $120, the Summum Chardonnay marks a new high for Oregon white wines. Tarlov says the price is fair compared with equivalent wines from California, but he's also trying to make a statement. "One of the former owners of Romanée-Conti, Lalou Bize-Leroy, said price is one way of showing respect for the wine," Tarlov says. "It's not greed. It's saying we think this is a world-class wine."
elevating the perception of American terroir was only the first part of Tarlov's mission. With his Once Wines, he's out to elevate the quality of by-the-glass house wines at restaurants. Working with his California-based winemaker, Sashi Moormanwho oversees vineyards in Sonoma and the Central CoastTarlov started reaching out to his sommelier and chef contacts. Tom Colicchio's restaurant Craft was among his first customers. "It was great to find someone who was excited about house wine," says Colicchio. "And it isn't like we created some little wine we could pour by the case and make a ton of money onthis is a serious wine."
To match Craft's pristinely sourced, simple dishes, the restaurant chose a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from a superior subsection of Seven Springs. "That part of Seven Springs has a nice rise," Tarlov says admiringly. "The grapes get ripe but have a good level of acid. We ferment the grapes whole-cluster, because Tom likes the spicy aspect stems give the wine." The minerally red has a clean, lightly smoky taste that's exceptional with Craft's bacon-and-sweet-pea risotto.
In an even more ambitious collaboration, Once worked with wine director Belinda Chang and chef Gabriel Kreuther from The Modern at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Together they designed three reds and two whites; the zippy 2008 California PMGan acronym for pour ma gueule, Burgundy wine slang meaning "down the throat"has an exuberance that matches with Kreuther's Alsatian-inflected menu. The earthy Pinot Noir goes well with his tangy gnocchi, lightly bound with fromage blanc and served with snails, garlic butter and mushrooms.
Even as Tarlov expands his custom-wine operation, he continues to experiment with Evening Land, trying to create that perfect bottle. "In Greek mythology, the Evening Land is where the gardens of the gods are located," he explains. "The gardens are tethered to the setting sun, so mortals can't get there. The fruit, when pressed into juice, makes you immortal. The story was picked up by the Vikings; every time they sailed west was a journey to the Evening Land. It's a code word for adventure. The idea that you can travel all around the world but never quite get there."
Evening Land: Winemakers
Born in Quebec, Meunier trained in New Zealand and Burgundy, but she loves the freedom of working in Oregon: "In France everything is decided for you: How many plants per acre, whether you're allowed to irrigate. Here, we're still feeling our way."
After 10 years at Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Burgundy, the French winemaker now jets between Evening Land's Burgundy, Oregon and California properties. He's been surprised by the quality of the Oregon wines: "They're easier to drink than some Burgundy Pinot Noirs, more generous in fruitI am falling in love with this style of wine now."
Moorman oversees Evening Land's seven California vineyards (three on the Sonoma Coast and four in Santa Barbara County) and most of the Once Wines bespoke blends: "We set forth to offer young, domestic vintages that would be balanced and delicious right after bottling."
Evening Land: Chefs
Gabriel Kreuther, The Modern
Kreuther and wine director Belinda Chang worked with Evening Land's Sashi Moorman to create five custom bottles, including a Pinot the chef calls "joyful."
Pair With: Pinot Noir
Thomas Keller, Bouchon
Keller's French bistro was Tarlov's first bespoke client. The red blend is featured on the by-the-glass list.
Pair With: Bordeaux blend
Alfred Portale, Gotham Bar and Grill
Portale and wine director Eric Zillier enjoyed working with Tarlov because together they could customize details, like the use of oak. "We love that openness and specificity," says Zillier.
Pair With: Pinot Noir
Tom Colicchio, Craft
Colicchio felt sure that Craft's house wine should be a single-vineyard Pinot Noir: "I wanted a sense of place, plus Pinot is food- and mouth-friendly. It's not chock-full of tannins."
Recipe: Pea-and-Bacon Risotto
Pair With: Pinot Noir