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Eric Wareheim on Winemaking

[Comedian, Winemaker]

“I don’t think there are a lot of serious winemakers who are doing it like we are. We’re having fun with it. And it gives us that advantage to open up to people who are normally not serious wine drinkers—to just have fun with it.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire
header-image

Eric Wareheim on Winemaking

[Comedian, Winemaker]

“I don’t think there are a lot of serious winemakers who are doing it like we are. We’re having fun with it. And it gives us that advantage to open up to people who are normally not serious wine drinkers—to just have fun with it.”

by Ross Simonini
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

Eric Wareheim on Winemaking

Ross Simonini
5 Snaps

Eric Wareheim is one of the great visionaries of comedy in the new millennium. Over the last sixteen years, he’s made several television shows, movies, and books that push the seedy outer limits of deadpan humor. Mostly working with his collaborator, Tim Heidecker, he sings, acts, and writes to construct a dark, disgusting, and distinctly American farce. He also costars in the Netflix show Master of None, and has directed intense, absurdist music videos for Charli XCX, Major Lazer, and Flying Lotus. 

In the last few years, Wareheim has also stepped into the wine business. With winemaker Joel Burt, he started Las Jaras Wines, a company focused on low-intervention, light, affordable wines. Their most popular variety, Sweet Berry Wine, takes its name from The Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, in which Dr. Steve Brule (played by John C. Reilly) greedily drinks a wine of the same name. Wareheim is serious about winemaking, but he also wants to rub against the industry’s snobbish, aristocratic reputation.

I spoke to Wareheim from Sonoma County, California, where I was living, not far from the Las Jaras winery. Recently, a series of fires had devastated the region, leveling homes, killing dozens of people, and ruining a large portion of the area’s fall harvest, including grapes. Las Jaras was not affected, but since the fires the winery has donated a portion of its sales to the recovery of California’s wine country.

—Ross Simonini

 

THE BELIEVER: Where does your wine come from?

ERIC WAREHEIM: The winery is in Sonoma County, but the grapes are from the Mendocino Mountains and Sonoma Mountain.

BLVR: What’s the beginning of the winemaking process?

EW: The beginning is a conversation that you have with your partners. For example, I have one partner, Joel Burt, and we talk about what kind of wines we want to make, how many cases we want to make—or, in our case, how many we can afford—and what style [we] want to make. And that sort of dictates where you go to buy the grapes, how soon you harvest them. You can harvest them early in the season or you can harvest them late in the season if you want a sweeter, kind of big-bodied fruit. We usually don’t do that. We usually harvest early in the season, because our wines are light, elegant, French-style, minimal-intervention wines that are made to be slammed with food, and not these heavy wines that are associated with California. We’d like to go back to the  ’70s, when California was making very elegant, world-class wine, and then America kind of dipped into this shit world. Right now there is a boom of a lot of cool winemakers who are making really awesome stuff. And the way our company started was we had this idea to do Sweet Berry Wine, which is [Tim and Eric character] Dr. Steve Brule’s wine. It’s just a bit that is very popular. Every bar or restaurant I go into, someone would joke, “Would you like some Sweet Berry Wine?” So [we felt] one of the bottles should be this thing that captures this amazing bit that we did.

BLVR: What exactly is a natural wine?

EW: It’s a large umbrella term. It’s very hard to talk about, because there’s so many kinds of natural wines—there’s biodynamic wine; there’s organic wine. It means no pesticides on the plants. We also dry farm, which means there’s no unnatural irrigation. We just use the rainfall on some of the grapes we pick, which is also considered a natural kind of thing. We pick by hand—there’s no machines used, so they’re gently handled. And low-intervention also means we make it by hand. There’s a few people that actually touch the grapes and make it. We don’t put any coloring in it—no additives, no preservatives, other than a small amount of sulfur. I want to change people’s minds when they buy wine. You should think about it just like when you go to Whole Foods and you’re like, Do you want the organic piece of cauliflower or do you want the shitty farmed one? And also, it’s just the way that natural wine tastes. It’s usually a lot lighter and lower in alcohol because of how they process it. And it’s also just what I drink—I drink almost only natural wine. And it also yields way less hangovers.

BLVR: Why does it give you a hangover? The sugar?

EW: The more chemicals you put in anything, the more toxic it is to your body. For example, my mom drinks one glass of wine—[from a bottle] she buys at the grocery store for five dollars—which tastes like it only has 10 percent actual grapes; the rest of it is just fillers, water, chemicals, coloring. And that shit gives you hangovers. If you’re going to drink Zima or, like, a horrible chemical soda all night versus something with no chemicals in it, you’re going to have a better day the next day.

BLVR: Can you break down the Sweet Berry Wine for me?

EW: Sweet Berry Wine was a carignan, which is a grape—it was cheaper than a lot of the other grapes and it was just something that we wanted to fuck with. A carignan is a cool grape not many people know about, sort of like a spicier, grippier pinot noir.

BLVR: How many cases do you make?

EW: Last year’s vintage, we made 250 cases and we sold out in two hours online. And we only sell to thirteen states. Next year, we’re making a couple thousand cases and we’re going to sell to forty-eight states. We self-distribute in California—so I personally put them in all my favorite restaurants, all my favorite wine shops. I’m very active in the food and wine scene. I’m also kind of the art director in the company. I post a lot of photos of it, like me swimming with a bottle of rosé in Miami, and it gets people excited. I don’t think there are a lot of serious winemakers who are doing it like we are. We’re having fun with it. And it gives us that advantage to open up to people who are normally not serious wine drinkers—to just have fun with it.

BLVR: You’re trying to be accepted as serious while also being yourself: a comedian.

EW: It’s a reflection of me, you know? If you look at my body of work, I make a bunch of weird comedy stuff but I also make music videos that are beautiful; some are crazy. Comedy is only one side of me. Anyone that follows me on Instagram or knows me knows that food and wine have [played] a huge role [in] my life. I do feel like it’s a duty to give back to the world that you love—in the form of spreading the word of good, low-intervention wine. As you probably know, there’s a huge revolution of wine happening now. In New York City, it’s crazy, there are so many wine bars. In LA next year, five natural-wine bars are popping up. It’s gonna be this real thing that I’m proud to be a part of.

BLVR: When you say you’re a serious foodie, what do you mean by that?

EW: I first moved to LA about twelve years ago, and we had our first show. As soon as I had five dollars in my pocket, I was going to restaurants just to try stuff because I was interested. Quickly I became friends with a lot of food people, started traveling to Paris, to Rome, to Tokyo, and eating at the best restaurants there. It became this fanatical thing—like most food people get into. It’s like, “Oh, have you been to this place?” And every restaurant has wine pairings, so I tried the craziest wines from all over the world, and it’s like a big part of the culinary experience. So at the same time that I was getting into food, I was also getting into wine. And my partner, Joel, would tell me where to go. He’d be like, “Oh, you’re in Paris, you should go to this area called the Jura.

BLVR: You said California’s made bad wine recently. What’s that about?

EW: The late ’80s and ’90s were very bad. In the late ’70s, we were making amazing wine. Then people’s tastes adjusted a little bit and these big wine reviewers, like Robert Parker, came out and their word became God. And his word was “I want my Cabernets to taste like alcoholic blackberry jam.” So they need to be big, huge, sweet fruit bombs. And so the whole market shifted toward this rating system. Even before I knew anything about wine, I looked at this rating system and thought, Well, this is the word of God, this has a score of 97—I gotta get this bottle. And I’d buy these bottles and I’d be like, I just spent a hundred dollars on this and it tastes like shit. I can only have one sip, it’s so thick, so overly ripe. That just became a huge, popular thing. And just in the last ten, fifteen years, people are starting to shift their palates a little bit.

BLVR: Toward lighter wines?

EW: Different styles, all kinds of stuff. Like, we will never submit our wines to be rated. And all of my peers that are in the winemaking world, they don’t do that either. We don’t care about the system. It’s sort of the same thing that happened to the Michelin star system ten years ago, when people were like, Fuck that, we’re making fancy-ass restaurants, but we’re not gonna have white tablecloths; we’re going to have bistro-style stuff. We don’t care about the formalities and all the old, bougie kinds of things.

BLVR: So you think this wine-rating system is similar in that it was catering toward a certain flavor, a certain class?

EW: It was. It was catering to people with money. The whole wine system is very bougie and a lot of people don’t like it, including me, because of that—I could never afford it. And a lot of natural wine is very affordable—twenty dollars instead of one hundred dollars a bottle. We try to keep our prices down, too, because the idea is that wine is for everybody; it’s not just this rich person’s thing.

BLVR: I mean, Jesus wanted us all to have it! You’re working in the Jesus business. But continuing to go through the process—you’ve decided on the grape, you get the grapes from another vineyard, and then you bring them to your facility to be processed. Then what?

EW: It’s sort of called “urban winemaking.” There’s a lot of people in the East Bay, like Chris Brockway and Martha Stoumen, who are very popular natural winemakers. And the idea is, you can’t afford your own land; land is so expensive up there that, as little guys, you come in and you just lease parts for a year, like, “I’ll take this acre, this acre,” and you go and you have the grower pick it for you and drop the grapes off wherever you want. And in our situation, we have a place in Sebastopol that we share with a couple of other winemakers and we process all the wine there.

BLVR: What is the processing?

EW: So the wine comes in and then you have to decide on a couple things. How you want to ferment the grapes—there’s many ways to process. One is carbonic maceration, which means you just throw the grapes into a big vat and you just let them sit, and natural gravity slowly squeezes the grapes and they ferment in their skins, which produces a poppy wine. A lot of Beaujolais are made that way. Another style, like our carignan, you put it in another vat and you do this thing called a “punch-down,” [where] you actually push the grapes down and they pop open and you let them sit in the skins for a certain amount [of time]. And the rosé is a whole different thing. You press the grapes right away—red grapes—so their juices come out and you store that pink juice in a different tank. And then at that point there’s a next level, which is how long you ferment it and all the intricacies of the winemaking process. But the day the grapes come in, you have to know what you’re going to do with all the stuff, which is really fun. I did that on the 2017 harvest. It was awesome to meet all the growers that came in and were like, “I lost my house but the grapes are OK.”

BLVR: It’s still a very weird feeling up here.

EW: Makes one want to work even harder to promote wine in California just to kind of restore that balance up there.

BLVR: I have a few friends who work in the wine business and their entire crop was ruined by the smoke.

EW: Yeah, the smoke taint is a bad thing.

BLVR: How long did you decide to let the Sweet Berry Wine ferment?

EW: We did a natural press-down. ’Cause we wanted to make it almost styled like—I don’t want to say pinot noir, but that’s the easiest way to understand the lighter red that’s very brambly and juicy, and the way you do that is with punch-down fermentation. Once we check all the stats on it—once all the sugar levels are right—then you drain it and put it into barrels. We chose to use neutral oak barrels, which just means they’re French oak barrels that have been used before, because we don’t want too much of the oak in our wines. We want them to be very neutral, but the wood gives it a nice round sensation.

BLVR: And you let it sit for how long?

EW: The carignan sits in barrels for roughly a year. The rosé never sees barrels—it’s only in vats for four months. The rosé is a very quick turnaround, but the cabernet you let sit in barrels for a full two years and that helps it be less tannic and a little bit more supple and rounded.

BLVR: How do you make sure it’s on the right track as it’s fermenting?

EW: We do constant samplings. We put the wine in many different barrels and you have to check each barrel a lot just to make sure nothing crazy is going on in there: some bacterial infection might happen if it’s not sealed properly. If it’s tasting too oaky, you need to put it in a larger barrel. Tons of little, detailed things happen all the time. You gotta constantly check on it. This wine is alive and it’s just naturally changing and it’s our job—and specifically Joel’s, who lives up there and works there every day—to test it. He knows when it’s like, “OK, we’ve got to pull the trigger on this and get this out and bottle it.”

BLVR: So at the beginning it tastes mostly like grape juice and each day it tastes a little bit less sugary?

EW: Yeah, it’s really wild how much it changes, even in one month. When we first started this last year, we went to the winery and sampled stuff and I was like, “What the fuck, man, we are going to be broke.” It just was not good. It was very, very intense, acidic, fruity. It was wild. And Joel was just like, “Chill. This is how wine is made.”

BLVR: Why do you always see people stepping on grapes?

EW: It’s two things. One, it’s really fun to do that, and other people feel that by using your feet it’s more in tune with the origins of winemaking, and in this kind of low-intervention philosophy people are like, “Well, people didn’t have machines to press down on the grapes; this is how they did it, so we’re going back to the roots.” Just like in any kind of food culture, sometimes people go over the top in the process of it. And we don’t do that. We use traditional punch-down methods. But I have a lot of friends that make wine and I’ve stomped on a lot of grapes and it’s really quite fun.

BLVR: Seems like a fetish.

EW: It is. And there’s a lot of natural winemakers that live in Slovenia, Croatia, weird nudist camps that will only do it that way because that’s how they want to do it. Every winemaker’s different. We love some wild natural wine but we’re also, like, practical men.

BLVR: Do you know people who make biodynamic wine, where you, like, bury a horn in the ground in autumn?

EW: Yeah, that is crazy. That whole phenomenon is so interesting. I think Vice did something on this guy, Nicolas Joly, the godfather of natural winemaking, and he talks about this Austrian guy, Gustav, or something like that—

BLVR: Rudolf Steiner.

EW: Yeah. That guy is amazing. Very weird for an Austrian to come up with that kind of idea, but a lot of people do it and they make beautiful wine.

BLVR: Is it possible to have a very bad batch of wine?

EW: Oh yeah. There’s all kinds of shit that could happen if the temperatures aren’t controlled properly. Joel is a super freak, which I think is why we really bond. I’m very anal, even though I seem like an experimental, weird person. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to making TV, and it’s the same thing with wine.

BLVR: When you say natural, do you also mean organic?

EW: Yes. Natural generally means organic.

BLVR: So you put it in the bottle but it’s still changing, right?

EW: Yeah, wine continues to evolve. You put it in the bottle and then there’s a thing called bottle age or bottle shock. You don’t want to drink wine for a couple months after it’s in the bottle, for red wine. The wine actually gets used to its surroundings and settles. Rosés and pét-nat—pétillant naturel, which means the wine ferments in the bottle—and quick-fermenting stuff, you could sell right away.

BLVR: Do you have to get any kind of FDA approval?

EW: Yeah, there’s tons of licenses and stuff. It’s so annoying. But it’s good, so it’s not going to kill anybody. You have to have everything inspected and have licenses, so it’s all legal. Right now we’re trying to get a license so we can go from thirteen states to forty-eight states, which would really open up our business, but it’s a very complicated, long process.

BLVR: You mentioned wine killing people. It that possible?

EW: No, it’s not possible. It’s the nectar of the gods!

BLVR: For the Sweet Berry Wine, which is the one we’ve been talking about most, I wanted to get a really intense description from you about it. You know, the sort of classic wine descriptions, where you’re going into the notes and the soil.

EW: Sweet Berry Wine is not sweet at all. It’s actually a very dry wine, it’s medium-bodied, it’s low in alcohol, which means it’s not as full a mouthfeel as you usually have, which is what we want. We don’t want that full-bodied, sweet experience. It does have a lot of fruit on the palate. It’s kind of blackberry; it’s a little bit spicy, a little bit juicy. It’s very alive and exciting. Acid is a thing a lot of natural-wine people talk about: a wine has got to have a good amount of acid to balance a big, sweet fruit flavor. So it’s a very balanced wine. A lot of people slam this kind of wine because it’s lower in alcohol. You could drink a lot of it without getting sick of it. A lot of big wines—say, a super Tuscan or Sangiovese from Italy—I drink one glass of that and my palate is so exhausted, ’cause it’s so big and crazy that you don’t want to drink more than one glass. We’re on the other side of that argument. We want to drink a lot of wine; we want to drink it all throughout dinner and make sure it goes good with food. So it’s very much a balanced wine that brings out the flavors, especially for grilled meats, things like that.

BLVR: Are dry wines good with meat?

EW: In the spectrum, meat is big, very flavorful—anything grilled is very aggressive on your palate, and this wine is not that aggressive. It’s not the opposite of what meat is like; it just kind of brings out the flavors of what a grilled meat does.

BLVR: And all the blackberry notes you mentioned—there’s no actual berry; the grape itself just happens to have those qualities in it, right?

EW: There’s a lexicon of terms that winemakers use. One is stone fruit, which is like peaches. There’s red fruit, which is plums, and there’s black fruit, which is blackberries. It doesn’t quite taste exactly like what a blackberry would, but it gives off these notes. Wine is so beautiful and magical. The way you really tell these blackberry notes is you put it in your mouth and let it sit on your tongue and breathe air over the wine and let it sit on your tongue like a little spoon. The only ingredient in this wine is grapes. Oh, and one other thing I wanted to mention about the low-intervention thing—we don’t add any commercial yeast. Once you throw the grapes in the bin, like I was saying, some winemakers will take commercial yeast, throw it in there to help the fermentation process go faster or more evenly. But what we do, and what natural winemakers do, is they just use the yeast that is on the natural grape skin. So it ferments itself, which is why you can make wine at home by just putting grapes out on your table. Because those natural yeasts will eventually eat the sugars and create alcohol. And that’s another big part of natural winemaking.

BLVR: What else are you working on these days besides winemaking?

EW: Tim and I have a new, amazing project we’re trying to develop: the Tim and Eric TV network. Which is our dream come true. We would be controlling the whole network, which is our shows, new shows, lots of other weird shows. I’m writing my first feature, starring John C. Reilly, which I’m very excited about doing.

BLVR: But you’re just in the writing stage now?

EW: Yeah, it’s based off of a music video I did called Ham; it’s on YouTube. Him in a fat suit. It’s kind of about LA in thirty years with a very dystopian look. It’s almost like horror comedy. It’s very scary, violent.

BLVR: You’re also working on a wine show, right?

EW: Yeah, we’re pitching a show called Wine. It’s like a food documentary show but about wine. Super-interesting stories from all over the globe, dealing with wine. Like, there’s this prison island in Italy and they make wine there, on the prison site, and we’re going to go there and film, talk to the prisoners. It’s a cool thing. The main guy is a master sommelier named Patrick Cappiello, my good friend, and he’s kind of like a punk-rock winemaker. A sommelier that’s got tattoos.

BLVR: There’s a recent trend of homemade beer, and I’ve seen some people who have very small vineyards in their yards. Is this something you can do on a small level?

EW: You can totally do it. In Italy and a lot of Europe, grandparents grow a couple of vines and they make it themselves. Wine is so easy to make. You literally just take grapes, put them in a bin, and let them sit for a while, and the natural yeast will turn them into wine. It’s pretty easy. You could do it on a kitchen table if you really wanted.

BLVR: Have you ever messed around with that, amateur-style?

EW: No, I’m not really a tinkerer when it comes to that kind of stuff. I garden; I’m very into cooking and gardening right now, so I tinker a little bit with plants and organic farming and stuff. But wine I’ve always respected as such a—it’s kind of like sushi. I leave it to the masters.

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