An exceptionally talented man, Larry Stone, MS, is the co-founder and CEO for one of the great Oregon producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Lingua Franca. Lingua Franca crafts some absolutely stunning wines that are not to be missed. I was particularly enthralled with his new release wines that were coming from the hot 2015 vintage and showed incredible tension in the glass. As a Master Sommelier, Larry Stone became the first American to win the prestigious Best International Sommelier in French Wines competition in Paris. His career spans 30 years as a restaurateur and sommelier at the Four Seasons, Charlie Trotter’s, and Rubicon Restaurant among others, I recently had the chance to sit down with this very busy man and chat wine. Larry has a wonderful story in wine and I think you will very much enjoy hearing more about his journey. Here is my interview with Larry Stone, MS, owner and winemaker of Lingua Franca.
WWB: Can you talk about the challenges with passing the master sommelier exam? What was the greatest hurdle for you? Do you still actively blind taste wines of the world?
LS: Working sommeliers have the most privileged position in the world to taste hundreds of new wines in a year. And they also should frequently taste the wines they are serving to make sure that they are showing well and evolving as predicted. So while I do taste wines blind sometimes, it is nothing in comparison with what I did while actively working in a restaurant. The challenge in taking the Master sommelier examination was not really knowing what to expect. We had no road map at all, only the knowledge that we would have three areas of responsibility. We had no grid! We didn't have access to anyone who had already taken the exam! The part I had the most difficulty with was the completely unexpectedly hard service portion.
WWB: What was it like Opening Rubicon restaurant with celebrity partners such as Robert de Niro and Robin Williams? Can you talk about constructing that exceptional wine list?
LS: Knowing that Robin Williams, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert DeNiro were partners did add to the public perception of glamour of the opening, which actually worked against us in building up expectations too high. We had a pretty tight budget to work with to open with. However, Drew Nieporent's team did an excellent job with Rockwell. The big thrill for me was working with Drew and Daniel Johnnes. I had very little contact with the celebrity owners until after the opening. The wine list grew to its strong position over the first two years, especially as the local tech industry started to boom.
WWB: How did you decide to found Lingua Franca wines?
LS: I helped to start Evening Land already with a guest, Mark Tarlov, in 1996. He only wanted to drink Jayer and Roumier off of the wine list, nearly every evening. Since he was from NY I asked him to at least try a few West Coast Pinot that would be interesting and he said he didn't think that any place would be able to make wine of the quality of Burgundy. I mentioned three places, two in California, but told him then that the very best place outside of Burgundy would be the Willamette Valley, especially the Eola-Amity Hills and especially the area near Seven Springs, which consistently made outstanding wines, proven to me in multiple times since the mid-1980s. I loved Cristom, Bethel Heights and Adelsheim versions of the vineyard. So when the company was founded, that was one of the three places we leased. When I visited the vineyard I noticed an identically situated site across the gravel road and thought to myself, that would work just as well! So without a plan to actually make wine, just to have the privilege and pleasure of developing a vineyard from scratch on an exceptional site, I figured out how to purchase the land and thought the rest would come. Two years after planting the vineyard things started to fall in place.
WWB: Your new Chardonnay bottling, the 2015 Lingua Franca ‘Bunker Hill Vineyard’ Chardonnay (WWB, 94) is an exceptional wine that has remarkable poise and richness. Can you talk about this spectacular new release?
LS: It’s all about the exceptional vineyard site, soils, slope, elevation, sensitive farming and vine age. The winemaking must be meticulous too! Thomas Savre is a very dedicated man who is passionate about doing justice to the vineyards we work with. Our selection of all the sites is thoroughly researched and tested and then we only select the finest vineyards to put on our single vineyard selections. Bunker Hill's 23 year old vines, and rocky Witzel and Nekia soils are excellent for expressing minerality, tension, life.
WWB: What are some of your favorite wines of the world?
LS: There are so many options today for wine lovers. I have been enjoying Oregon Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so my collection is growing fast in that department. I still try to buy some good bottles of Burgundy. Then of course there has been a string of outstanding vintages in the Northern Rhone, so I have been buying quite a bit of those. Loire Valley red wines and Muscadet for eating oysters. Austrian Riesling and some Grüner Veltliner from Wachau, Kracher dessert wines, Likewise Italy, which offers ever greater quality, from Tuscany (I love great estate Chianti Classico), or in Barolo and Barbaresco, Gattinara, Dolcetto, Barbera, even now in Sicily, like Trinoro Passopisciaro or Terre Nerre and others. I have a quite a few Napa Valley wines. Napa is undergoing a course correction by making slightly more restrained wines of more classic structure--look at Quintessa and Inglenook, Araujo, Colgin, Lokoya, Dominus. Lewis Cellars has made quite rich but really fascinating bolder wines, that have structure and age well, too. I love them as well. Then there is Diamond Creek and Ridge Montebello, which for decades in blind tastings has been confused with First Growth Bordeaux. I could name dozens of others. How long do you want a list to be? I cellar quite a diverse group of wines. I am happy that I have bought and drunk all of these and will continue to do so.