Burt and Wareheim Awesome Wine, Great Job!

Joel Burt and actor Eric Wareheim discuss partnership and successful launch of new brand

by Stacy Briscoe
Joel Burt (left) with Eric Wareheim (right), winemakers of Las Jaras. Photo courtesy of Las Jaras.

San Rafael, Calif.—In 2017, Eric Wareheim, co-creator and co-star of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a comedy show that ran on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim from 2007 to 2010, released a wine based around one of the show’s sketches.

For those unfamiliar, the name, the label art and the wine’s initial popularity all centered around a character played by actor John C. Reilly. The sketch features Reilly as the character Dr. Steve Brule, slobbering down glass after glass of red wine. “What kind of wine are you drinking?” asks co-star Tim Heidecker, playing TV anchor Jan Skylar. “Sweet berry wine!” answers Reilly.

Jokes aside, Wareheim has since partnered with seasoned vintner Joel Burt, former winemaker for Yountville, Calif.-based Domaine Chandon, and together the two created a business based around sourcing good grapes, thoughtful winemaking and personal, creative brand marketing.

How it started
“What’s really interesting is that the wine community was actually very welcoming,” said Burt, who now is focused full-time on Las Jaras. When the first vintage of Sweet Berry Wine debuted in 2017, people may not have expected the wines to be “that great” Burt said. “But they’ve been impressed with the level of refinement in our wines. Everything we do is deliberate: all label choices, the design, how it’s made. Everything is incredibly deliberate.”

These deliberate choices, what Burt calls the “millions of decisions that go into every bottle,” are ultimately a reflection of his career as a winemaker and the relationship between him and Wareheim.

Burt described the beginning of his career as one of a constant notion that bigger is always better: bigger wines, bigger alcohol, bigger scores — wines that cater to the biggest critics. But around 2003, Burt started making experimental lots in his garage, crafting wines in the style of, what he refers to as, the “new California movement:” balance in flavor and texture, low intervention and an all-in-all more “natural” approach to winemaking.

“When I first started studying winemaking (in 1999), I was mentored by David Lucas (of Lucas Winery in Lodi, Calif.) who worked with Mondavi in grower relations in the 1970s through the ‘90s. He was a stalwart of wines being of balance and restraint, so I tasted a lot of those wines,” Burt said. “They were always under 14% alcohol, always delicious and always ageable.”

These, he said, are the wines that ultimately influenced his winemaking style and that of Las Jaras.

In 2009, through mutual friends, Burt met Wareheim. At this time, because of his role as Arnold in the Netflix original series Masters of None in which Wareheim and star Aziz Ansari go on multiple culinary adventures, Wareheim already had a reputation as a big foodie. He was just starting to become interested in wine in relation to food when he met Burt. “But I was on a different track than him. When you first get engaged in wine, you don’t necessarily fall into those wines of balance,” Burt said, explaining that, at the time, the “popular” wines were big, bold over-extracted wines. “Which is fine,” he said, “But not necessarily something I want to drink on a regular basis.”

Burt became Wareheim’s wine tutor, introducing him to the more subtle and naturalistic wines he’d become immersed in. “Every time we’d go out, people would compliment Eric on the Sweet Berry Wine sketch and just send him wine to our table,” Burt said.

Between the duo’s engaged tastings, the two discussed making Sweet Berry Wine a real wine for an upcoming live tour Wareheim had scheduled. “Well you can’t really legally sell wine on a tour like that,” said Burt. “I said, ‘Let’s do the wine for real. And let’s make it good.’”

Building a brand; selling through social media
The first, 2016 vintage of Sweet Berry Wine, a modest 225-case production of 100% Carignan sourced from Gary Venturi’s vineyard in Mendocino County, Calif., (which is actually completely dry despite its name) sold out in four hours after it released in 2017.

“This year it sold out in seven days,” Burt said, adding that this year’s case production significantly increased from 225 to 955. “We reserved just under 600 cases for DtC, which includes wine club, and the rest is for distribution. So people will see it popping up here and there,” he said.

Burt said the boutique brand has grown almost entirely due to social media promotion — namely Wareheim’s Instagram account. “I take pictures of me with our wine all over the place,” said Wareheim in an email to Wines & Vines. “I hope people trust my taste in food and wine. It seems to be helping.”

“I had never heard of a wine being marketed solely through Instagram,” Burt said. But it was in keeping with his business plan for the still boutique brand. Burt said when the two first started Las Jaras, he was “very cautious” about starting small and having organic growth. “If you can do it on the cheap and don’t have a ton of capital, and if you do it right, you can invest in yourself and grow a little more each year,” he said.

And they have grown the business significantly. The inaugural 2016 vintage, released in 2017, contained a total of 750 cases, including 225 cases of 100% Carignan, 150 cases of rosé of Carignan, 150 cases of “petillant” sparkling Carignan and 100 cases of a 2015 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon — all sold alongside the 225 cases of Sweet Berry Wine. One year later, Las Jaras produced a total of 2,800 cases, bumping up the production of each wine and adding “Glou Glou” (100% Charbono) to the portfolio.

This year Las Jaras expanded production even more and the 2018 vintage will include Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Teroldego, Trousseau Gris and Chenin Blanc. “A lot of these wines will be made in small volumes and will be sold exclusively through our wine club,” said Burt, explaining that their vision for the Las Jaras wine club has always been to give members access to special, low-production wines. “It makes it fun and makes us feel OK about experimenting, doing fun stuff and not having a million SKUs on the market.”

Currently, Las Jaras sells about 50% of the wines through DtC sales, which includes sales made through the website as well as their wine club. They also self-distribute to select retail and restaurant locations throughout California and are working with Renegat Wines marketing company to help find distributors along the East Coast. Las Jaras is currently sold in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and are looking to expand distribution into Tennessee, Oregon, and Colorado.

“It’s very hard. I wish I had the time to sell our wine personally,” Wareheim said, saying that it can be frustrating to give control over to sales people who may not understand the depth of what he and Burt are doing.

Bottle art
Bottle art is another element to the Las Jaras brand strategy. Each bottle showcases artwork created by an artist-friend of Wareheim, illustrating what the winemaking duo feel the “personality” of the wine would be. “There is a great community of artists, directors and creative people who bond over wine,” Wareheim said. “I want people to remember these friendships through the labels and the wine we are making at this moment.”

From the portrayal of John C. Riley on Sweet Berry Wine (by Duke Aber), to the promiscuous portrait on the 100% Carignan (by Chloe Wise) and the somewhat psychedelic creations on the rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petillant (by Amanny Ahmad, Sam Borkson and Jen Star, respectively) — the front labels of Las Jaras wines span the artistic spectrum.

The winemaking process
Though “natural” is a word Burt hesitates to use in context with the Las Jaras wines (“People are so sensitive about the evolving definitions,” he said), it is something they strive for and the reputation they’ve received within their first year in business. “In a perfect sense, ‘natural wine’ would be 100% organic and made with no additions. “That is the goal, but as a new brand it’s very difficult to find organic fruit.”

Burt said that next year, Las Jaras will be working very closely with their grower partner Venturi to convert the blocks they source from to completely organic farming. “It won’t take much to get it there,” Burt said. Las Jaras currently sources its old-vine Carignan, Charbono and Zinfandel from Venturi.

Sourcing from the right vineyards is a critical component to the Las Jaras wine profile, which Burt describes as an “Old World style reminiscent of the Napa wines from the 1970s: low alcohol, bright acidity, lengthy finish and ageable.”

“With Las Jaras we decided that we wanted to use old vine (Carignan). These grapes have a longer hang time and don’t get those high levels of ripeness because the vines just shut down,” Burt said. The ideal, ripeness, he said is about 22 to 23 Brix for red grapes Las Jaras currently works with — this is where he feels the grapes reach the appropriate level of acidity but maintain a softness in the tannins.

When it comes to the actual winemaking, Las Jaras produces their wines at Owl Ridge Wine Services, a custom crush facility in Sebastopol, Calif. Burt described the facility as a “nice place to work,” because they have a lot of small tanks and allow him to do a lot of non-conventional winemaking. “Most custom crushes are all large tanks,” he said. “This place lets me be more specific with my wines and they have more options like concrete eggs and large format barrels.”

A few of Burt’s “unconventional” techniques include carbonic maceration for the Charbono, a carbonic red-white fermentation for a (yet-to-be revealed) upcoming release and a somewhat unique sparkling process for the petillant wine. “We do sparkling wine that is high pressure like with the traditional method, but it’s made without a sugar or must addition,” Burt said. “We stop the original fermentation by chilling and we send the sweet wine to bottle with yeast culture to ensure a complete fermentation.” Burt calls this method un-traditionelle.

Although the celebrity-winemaker Wareheim splits his time between Los Angeles and wine country, Burt says he’s constantly checking in on every stage of the vine growth and winemaking process. “When he’s not here, we do about 100 texts a day, sending pictures. And we have all these documents that we keep together on Google docs where we keep a well sketched-out plan, so he knows what we’re doing and why.”


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