Joel Burt of Las Jaras Wines: Why we need to be less tribal about wine
I first came across Las Jaras Wines when my fellow Sweet Berry Wine fans (watch the original skit here) were aflutter with the news Eric Wareheim had collaborated with winemaker Joel Burt. Would the wine be terrible? Was it some cheap ploy to sell Sweet Berry Wine merch? Who cares! I needed it!
Fast forward a few years, and the Las Jaras brand has garnered respect within the wine community for making serious, terroir driven, low intervention wines. I was absolutely elated when Joel agreed to chatting when I reached out. Read our conversation below.
LM: How did the opportunity present itself to make sweet berry wine? Why did you opt to make it a natural wine?
JB: Eric and I had been friends for a while and I was a disgruntled corporate winemaker at the time. I was making minimal intervention and maximum intervention wines at the time for my corporate overlords. I had loved hanging out at Terroir in San Francisco and was into the wines in that burgeoning scene. I was a huge fan of Burgundy and it seemed that producers that best expressed terroir were farming organically and using minimal intervention in the cellar. That is really where my roots are in wine and how I wish to work. Eric started talking to me about making a silly wine called Sweet Berry Wine to sell in the merch booth when on tour with the Tim and Eric Awesome Show. I told him that he couldn’t do that legally, but it might be fun to make a serious wine and sell it direct online.
LM: I'm a huge fan of the sweet berry wine skit (like many) - this must have been a challenging feat to be taken seriously in the wine community, especially based on a comedy bit that made fun of the industry so ruthlessly. What do you think has made the venture so successful without coming across kitschy or gimmicky?
JB: We started the project really small, we made 250 cases the first year. I think it was taken seriously because the wine was pretty serious (it was made from 50% whole cluster old vine dry farmed Carignan aged in neutral oak) and the art work, by Duke Aber, is very classy. I guess the minimalism we employ in the wine bottle design allows people to make up their own minds about what is in the bottle. We like there to be space in our package design and space in the wines themselves.
LM: Can you describe your farming philosophy?
JB: We source all of the fruit from our vineyards, but we work with our growers so that the grapes are farmed in a way that makes sense mutually. When we first started out, we couldn’t get much organic fruit, but we have slowly convinced all of our growers (except our Trousseau Gris source) to either not use systemics or to switch to organic practices. This has allowed us to form great relationships and incredible fruit sources. I come from an organic farming family and I studied Permaculture under Bill Mollison, I really love the holistic approach to farming and hope to have a vineyard one day to showcase that.
LM: I talk to so many winemakers these days, specifically those making minimal intervention wine, who say despite their wine making pedigrees/education, they tend to do the exact opposite of what they were taught in school. Would you agree? Why or why not?
JB: I wouldn’t say I totally agree with that. I went to Fresno State to study winemaking and everyone was really concerned about making clean wines at the time and we were taught to be overly cautious. Even then, in the early 2000’s, there was great respect for wineries that were making wines naturally. It always seemed to me that you can make clean terroir driven wines using minimal intervention. I am not really talking about the very experimental and unique wines you see today, but other than Superbloom, we don't really make those. It is a lot of work to make consistent and stable wines without additives, but knowing what is going on microbiologically and chemically is an asset. LM: How important is marketing in wine culture ?
JB: That is a tough question. It is probably pretty important, but I think people are tired of being force-fed something. We have no idea what we are doing wine marketing wise, but we just follow our instincts. Much of our marketing is crowd sourced it seems, by people who love the wines. We give our wine club members lots of perks because they allow us to do this amazing pursuit.
LM: I attend a lot of conventional tastings as I feel it's important to maintain a benchmark for typicity - and so my palate doesn't get totally lost in one style. I find when I attend these events though, I have a lot of disdain for the attitudes - in fact I attended a tasting recently where I overhead someone remark "I'm so glad none of these natural wine people are here." - do you think we'll ever find common ground or will there always be disparity?
JB: I know these winemakers! It is sad that people get so tribal, people need to have open minds. I think typicity is important but so is making wines that are not boring. The wines that are really popular in the natty wine scene are pretty iconoclastic and that is pretty scary to people with a classic background. There are plenty of wines that are not totally wild though, and those should be exciting to all wine lovers.
LM: What are you drinking lately? What are you excited about?
JB: I always love Ganevat, Alice et Olivier DeMoor, Lamy, Jean Yves Perron, Occhipinti, and New California: Sandhi and Ceritas Chardonnay, Broc, Martha Stoumen, Ruth Lewandowski, and Oregon: Division wine Co, Maloof, Swick, and St Reginald Parish. I am excited about fresh, clean, mineral driven wines.
LM: What's next for Las Jaras? Where do you see the brand going?
JB: We are trying to figure out how to do a pickup party and we'd like to figure out a pop up tasting room in the future. We have about 15 wines currently and we will be refining those; which is super fun. Eric and I love to look at the wines and make plans for refining them the next year.
LM: Lastly - if you could only pick three wines were you to find yourself on death row - what would they be?
JB: The best wine I’ve ever had was a 2005 Armand Rousseau Clos St. Jacques, so I would have to have that, Sandhi Bentrock Chardonnay, Coche Dury Meursault Genevrieres. I am a slut for mineral driven Chardonnay. A big thanks to Joel for agreeing to speak with me. You can learn more about Las Jaras here: https://lasjaraswines.com/ or follow them on Instagram @lasjaraswines