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Joel Burt, winemaker and co-founder of Las Jaras Wines
Issue 63: On his background in wine making, what his family’s legacy in grape growing taught him, and how he partners with co-founder Eric Wareheim to grow their brand.
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Joel Burt is a winemaker and one-half of the team behind Las Jaras Wines. Joel, with his co-founder, comedian Eric Wareheim, make delicious wines with energy and balance. With a focus on low-intervention methods, their wines are vibrant and delicate.
I chatted with Joel about his background in wine making, what his family’s legacy in grape growing taught him, and how he partners with Eric to grow their brand.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about your background and how you got into wine making?
Joel Burt: I come from a family of organic table grape farmers, and when I was in high school, I used to spend my summers in the family vineyards. I really loved agriculture, but as I grew older, I became really interested in food and wanted to be a chef. When I was in high school, I was a dishwasher in kitchens to get my foot in the door. I decided I would just try to work my way through a kitchen. So I did that for a while, while taking some classes at the junior college.
I ended up in Oakland doing cooking and catering. And I was thinking, you know, it would be cool to go into agriculture because in a kitchen time just disappears. You’re always busy, and it's really hard to plan for the future when you're basically putting out fires all day long, so to speak.
So then I thought, maybe I would go into wine viticulture, because with my culinary background, it might be cool, and I also wouldn't have to live in the Central Valley, where I grew up. I went and looked at Fresno State, and I looked at Davis. At Fresno State, there were only two students in the viticulture program, but there were, like, 60 winemaking students. I met the winemaking students, and I'm like, yeah, this is what I need to do. I felt like I'd found my tribe.
I spent a year learning as much as I could about wine. I ended up being a wine buyer at a Whole Foods in Berkeley, I worked my first crush at Lucas Winery in Lodi. I'd drive to Lodi on the weekends and work in the tasting room too. I just really got hooked on it and really became obsessive. When I finished at Fresno State, I worked in Napa Valley. Early on, I worked with Lucas Winery — he really drilled in balanced wine to me, and it's something that I've never lost sight of.
That's what I was really interested in. When I got out of school, I'm like, I’m going to make 13% alcohol Cabernet. When I graduated, I did research at Robert Mondavi Winery for a little while, and actually ended up working with Alice Bouvot, who started Domaine de l'Octavin in Jura, who's like the darling of the natural wine world.
After that, I went to work for Aaron Pott, which makes really, really hedonistic wines. After that, I went and discovered Pinot Noir, and I figured, if I wanted to be in the world of balance, maybe Pinot Noir is the place to be. But really I’d landed in the world of hedonistic Pinot Noir. I was really jumping all over Napa Valley. I realized that if I want to have a wine that tastes a certain way, maybe I should do it myself. I had tried to get some things going. I leased a White Cabernet vineyard in Sacred Mountains for a while, did some consulting, and then I met Eric Wareheim, my now business partner.
He is in the beginning of his wine journey, and so we became friends, and then, a few years later, he had asked me if I wanted to help him make a wine that he could take on tour and sell in the merch booth. I'm like, oh, you can't really do that, it's not legal, but it might be interesting to do a small amount of wine to sell it online. So we bounced some things back and forth, and I thought the Carignan would be a good thing because it was cheap — you can hit a lower price point on the wine. So we made Sweet Berry Wine. We actually wanted to turn it into a wine club based on Carignan, we did Carignan rosé, Carignan sparkling wine, and Sweet Berry Wine, and the first vintage of Chloe.
And now we're here, making 26 different wines.
Brianna Plaza: I've never met anyone that comes from a grape growing background. So what, if anything, did growing table grapes teach you about the world of making wine?
Joel Burt: Well, my uncles, who started this table grape company, and my grandfather owned a vineyard that they farmed for, were pioneers in organic farming in the '70s. I grew up knowing that you can make the best quality produce in the world with organic farming. They grew the highest quality table grapes you've ever seen: massive, perfect texture, perfectly crunchy, everything. The grapes were sent all over. The were sent to Japan where people would pay hundreds of dollars a cluster for them. It really made me realize that there is a future in organics — it's good for making something that's a luxury product and it's good for the earth.
We source our grapes from all over the place. We source from places like Mendocino, Oregon, the Santa Rita Hills, Sonoma Valley, and San Benito County — basically, I'm on the hunt for really high quality, organic grapes.
What’s also interesting is that they had a brand as well, so they weren't just doing commodity-level farming. They realized that you need to have a brand so that you can have people that seek out your product. Those are the early things I learned.
In farming, you don't want to be a commodity, because then, you don't have any leverage. And if you can build a brand, then that's great.
The table grape business eventually folded and went under because of lots of problems, so I learned from that, as well. In starting this company with Eric, we just tried to keep it really tight and neat, not have investors, and just do what we want to do: answer to no one but ourselves.
Brianna Plaza: You said that Eric wanted to sell this wine on tour, but that seems like a one-off situation. Talk to me about how this partnership got started.
Joel Burt: I think originally, it was planning to be a one-off, but then we realized there was more opportunity. It actually took us about two years before we actually sold any wine. It's a massive amount of work, making even one wine, so we thought maybe it would be a good idea to have a wine club. But to do a wine club, you have to have a few different wines. So that's kind of how it went.
And what's interesting about it is that in the beginning is, we were a bit rudderless because we didn't know the personality of the wines. So yeah, it started off as, “let's just make one wine”, and then it just grew into this beast.
Brianna Plaza: You are a grower and winemaker, but Eric is a celebrity with a known interest in food and wine. How did you combine your styles and ideas?
Joel Burt: Eric is very savvy, as far as PR and marketing go. He’s also a collaborative artist, and that’s kind of how our relationship is. He doesn't really do a lot of projects on his own, so our brand is a collaborative project. I'm the one with the winemaking and vineyard skills, and he's the one with the visual and the marketing skills. And we both have our own wine sensibilities that we bring to the table. I've been a wine lover for a lot longer than Eric, but we both are incredibly curious.
Brianna Plaza: Considering Eric’s PR and marketing brain, how do you leverage that and his celebrity to build your brand?
Joel Burt: When we did our first launch in New York, I was working as part of corporate wine brand at that same time, and I was launching a new wine for them at the same time as ours. For corporate wine events, you just stack the guest list with celebrities and influencer-type people, as well as media and photographers.
When we did our first events, Eric said no photographers. We had two media people, they had 10 minutes, and then they left. We were trying to build the vibe around the party and not have it be like an LA-style event, where there are photographers everywhere, bumming everyone out. That kind of savvy would not come from a marketing team, that's for sure. Making choices that feel right within our sensibility has always been the main drive.
As far as his fan base, when we first started, the wines were mostly purchased, I think, by Tim and Eric fans. And most recently, a lot of people aren't part of that world at all, because there's not a lot of overlap. I think there's definitely a percentage of his fan base that are probably wine and food people, but I think, in general, a lot of his mega fans are probably more just pure comedy people. And as you know, he has a really different sensibility as far as comedy goes. His fans, as you can imagine, are not normal people.
In a lot of places when I'm traveling and showing the wines, I have to explain to people who Eric is, which is interesting. So I think, in the beginning, we didn't have footing, and now, as a wine brand, we do. And thanks to Eric's celebrity at first, we were able to grow an audience really quickly, but the wines can stand on their own feet now, which is amazing.