Greg Ralston, longtime managing director of Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena, has some ideas for what should happen with Evening Land Vineyards, where he was recently installed as CEO. Evening Land burst onto the scene less than four years ago with some spectacular Oregon Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. As the company grew quickly, Ralston believes, it might have dropped the ball in California and Burgundy, where it also makes wine.
“The narrative of Evening Land is terroir,” he said on a recent rainy afternoon, invoking the Burgundians’ favorite term for what makes wine worth drinking. We were sitting in ELV’s utilitarian office in the Salem, Ore., warehouse it uses as a winery. “The more we can do that, the further we can get.”
Ralston joined Evening Land this past spring after a stint of less than two years as vice president of portfolio development for Wilson Daniels Ltd., which handles prestige wine labels such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy, and Ponzi and WillaKenzie in Oregon. Evening Land tapped him to replace its founder, screen writer and producer Mark Tarlov, as CEO.
“I expected to do this for five years, then step back into movies,” Tarlov told me in April, when the announcement was about to be made. He retains his partnership.
Tarlov’s original idea was to create several price tiers, with color-coded labels: blue ($25) for the basic Oregon, California and Bourgogne, silver (around $40) for “village” level wines, gold ($65 to $90) for single-estate wines and white ($120 and up) for specific vineyard sections. These applied across the board.
“Too many bottlings confuse the customer, and the trade,” Ralston said, “and it inhibits the quality of the message. By reducing the number of different wines we bottle, we can remove some of the friction in the market. I don’t think the story of Evening Land has been told in a way that has any substantial understanding.”
Evening Land has vineyard holdings, some purchased, some leased, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Sta. Rita Hills in southern California and Occidental in Sonoma, and acts as a négociant in Burgundy. Legendary Burgundy winemaker Dominique Lafon consults with winemaker Isabelle Meunier in Oregon but has no direct role in the Burgundy wine. The California wines are made by Sashi Moorman.
Most of the changes will involve the California and Burgundy operations. Their bottlings have not done as well as the Oregon wines, which have the advantage of a fully mature 100-acre vineyard. Historically, Seven Springs sold some terrific Pinot Noir grapes to Bethel Heights and St. Innocent. Tarlov reunited the two sections of the vineyard that were separated in a family dispute, with ELV leasing the property with an option to buy. Lafon and Meunier identified subsections of the vineyard that now produce breathtaking wines.
The California wines, so far less spectacular, will focus more on Sta. Rita Hills, where ELV has 40 acres in the ground and the potential for 25 more, Ralston said. In Sonoma County it also plans to expand beyond the limited volume possible in its Occidental vineyard to look at Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley. “By 2014,” he said, “we should have a reasonable amount of wine.”
Earlier this year, ELV purchased Château de Bligny (the buildings but not the vineyards) to have a home for its production in Burgundy, overseen by Christophe Vial, the former winemaker at de Montille. The location is ideal, not far from Pommard in the Côte de Beaune. “We can make a tasting room there,” Ralston noted, “and it’s large enough to offer [winemaking] services, labeling and storage to other wineries.”
On recent visits to ELV’s cellar in Oregon, I’ve tasted some exciting samples of wines from properties around Salem. It’s unclear whether there would be room for these as special bottlings under Ralston’s vision. But it’s worth keeping an eye on.
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