It all started back in 2006 at a trade tasting in London. The late Mark Tarlov, a member of Evening Land’s founding team, broached the topic of consulting in Oregon to a handful of Burgundian winemakers. While the majority showed a strong lack of enthusiasm, it was ultimately Dominique Lafon’s interest that was piqued. An old friend of Berenice Drouhin, Lafon had visited Oregon wine country numerous times and quickly took notice of the potential for high-quality wine in the state; when coupled with his strong understanding of the US market, as well as his impeccable English, the deal was sealed almost immediately.
Lafon first came over to consult for Evening Land back in 2007. “At that time, producers of Oregon Chardonnay looked for very ripe fruit. Dissatisfied with the wines, [Lafon] pushed his reluctant owners to pick earlier,” Charles Curtis MW reported to Decanter. “When he harvested Chardonnay as he liked, Lafon found the results surprisingly good: ‘I said, oh my God, this is amazing! This has tension, this has balance, this is fresh, this is pure – this is incredible!’”
At the time, the estate only had about 14 rows of Chardonnay, known today as Summum. In addition to hiring Isabelle Meunier as the estate’s first winemaker, Lafon also brought Christophe Vial, his Cellar Master at Comtes Lafon (and winemaker at Domaine de Montille) over from France to help. “Christophe was really important to Evening Land’s Chardonnay story, as he brought expertise and all of the technique,” Sashi recalls. From there, the team tasted the estate’s first bottle – a 2007 Summum Chardonnay – and were floored with the results… so much so, that the estate priced it with a hefty three-figure tag.
“This was certainly the first time any Chardonnay from Oregon had been offered to the public at over $100 a bottle, but we had the support of a lot of sommeliers (including Raj), as well as the endorsement of a legendary Chardonnay producer from Burgundy,” Sashi recounts. The estate continued on for seven years, and in 2014, Sashi and Raj ultimately took over Evening Land Vineyards and operated it under their full oversight. “We were certainly a little apprehensive to be that far away from California, but we were confident and we loved the vineyard site,” Sashi remembers – and it all came full circle during that same year’s vintage, when Lafon came back to work harvest alongside Sashi and Raj together.
By 2015, the entire vineyard and cellar team were replaced with members hired by Sashi and Raj directly. “Raj and I knew that we were never going to be able to take Evening Land Vineyards where it needed to go if we didn’t own the whole process,” Sashi recalls. At the time, Larry Stone was just starting with Lingua Franca, and Lafon amicably moved over to Stone’s project. “That was a big moment for me and Raj, because we really had to own the process,” he remembers, citing countless hours of tasting and testing hundreds of bottles from earlier vintages at Evening Land, as well as other expressions of what winemakers were doing across the state.
From the beginning, the duo felt very strongly about the fact that Chardonnay had a lot of potential in Oregon, although their views came from different perspectives. “Raj always struggled with the structure of Oregon Pinot Noir / California Pinot Noir / American Pinot Noir, and was therefore more interested in Chardonnay, and he also felt as someone who was new to winemaking, that Chardonnay would be easier to produce, and in that he was right,” Sashi explains, noting that Chardonnay is much easier to manage from a viticultural perspective.
However, for Sashi, it came down to the environment. “One of the things that was really shocking to me about making wine in Oregon was that I had been told by the IPNC and every single oregon producer on the planet that the state has this really cool climate,” he recalls, emphasizing the duo’s familiarity with cool-climate growing sites on the West Coast, thanks mostly in part to their vineyards at Domaine de la Côte.
“That first year in Oregon, I was like, wow, this is not a cool climate at all,” he reveals, describing the climate as “remarkable,” just “not at all cool.” Unlike the blankets of fog that cover the Santa Rita Hills, Sashi describes the clear skies, low humidity, and incredibly bright, sunny, and above all, hot days that Oregon experiences.
“Raj and I were dumbfounded,” he laughs, recalling how their initial year in the vineyards was nothing of what they’d expected. However, this got Sashi to think about the difference between red and white grapes, particularly with regards to their behavior in the vines. “It became clear to me that this is an ideal place to grow white grapes, not just Chardonnay, but white grapes in general, as you have a lot of sunlight, which is good for developing the flavors and skins,” he says, citing that short growing seasons, late bud break, and early harvests are also beneficial to the cultivation of white grape varieties.
Overall, the growing conditions in Oregon allow for great phenolic ripeness, low potential alcohol, and very high natural acidity – a magic recipe for making great white wine. On the contrary, these conditions can be problematic for red grapes, as short growing seasons make it hard for red fruit to ripen, as well as for tannins and seeds to develop. Despite the perspective differences, the decision was clear: Chardonnay would become one of the key focuses of Evening Land Vineyards.
Stay tuned for Part Two.
In the mean time, Explore our Chardonnay Offerings.