I met the man in 1997, at the Rubicon restaurant in San Francisco. Oblivious of its reputation, I fortuitously landed a job as a bartender at the world-renowned, establishment which boasted one of the best and most diverse wine lists in the country at the time.
Owned by a prominent New York restaurateur, Drew Nieporent and his celebrity investors and partners, Robert DeNiro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robin Williams, the restaurant was the spot to go to and be seen in the Bay Area within its newly booming tech industry.
Back then, I knew that Cabernet Sauvignon was a red grape variety and Riesling a white one. Beyond that, my wine knowledge was laughable. But I was a damn good bartender, so they hired me.
Later, I found out that it was partly because of my wine ignorance that they gave me the job. They needed a solid barkeep, not another Larry Stone groupie to bask in the limelight and suck the knowledge out of one of the best sommeliers in the world. Little did they know, I knew nothing about Larry Stone and seeing as how researching was an unknown tool for gathering information at the time, I could not care less. They called him Master Stone and spoke about and to him with reverence.
I, on the other hand, was making great money and flirting with all the secretaries from the financial district, telling them embellished immigrant stories and topping their wine glasses with Gevrey Chambertins and Barolos without knowing what the grapes in these wines were.
Then I started attending his Saturday afternoon wine tasting classes, and my life took an unexpected change in direction. Wine became my profession.
Larry Stone grew up in Seattle, Washington. The only child of European immigrants, his mother, Rachel from Romanian, and his father, Irving, born in Tarnow, a historically Polish city, which back then was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Food and wine were always a vital component of his upbringing. His father worked at Pike Place Market in Seattle, supplying the family with fresh produce, and his mom was a fantastic chef. Larry made his first wine at the age of 14… from apples.
While in college, his appetite for knowledge was incessant: literature, linguistics, music, art history, European and Asian religions, chemistry; he excelled in all of them. He even taught in his senior year.
In his student years, while traveling in Europe, his appreciation for wine and food increased dramatically. It was then when his girlfriend at the time bought him the Alexis Lichine Encyclopedia of Wine, and he practically memorized the entire book.
In 1981, to supplement his meager teaching income at the University of Washington, he applied for a wine waiter position (no one really knew what a sommelier was at the time) at the Red Cabbage restaurant, a local establishment known for its extensive wine list. The owner, very skeptical of this come-from-nowhere, self-promoting wine guy used Lichine’s Encyclopedia to test Larry’s knowledge. Guess what the outcome was? Yes, Stone got the job.
The latter part of the ‘80s seemed to be the period that established and solidified Mr. Stone’s career in wine. In 1986, he won the first prize at the American Sommelier Competition. In 1988, Fred Dame nudged him into taking the master sommelier exams, given only for the second time ever in the U.S. He took and passed all three levels offered at the time: the intro, advanced, and master portion of the Court of Master Sommelier, all within a week. He was the ninth Master Sommelier in the U.S. Shortly afterward, in the same year, he proceeded to win a prestigious international French wine and spirit competition in Paris, a highly anticipated event dominated by the French for years. The competition was televised, and Stone stunned the audience and the judges with his knowledge and blind tasting skills. Now you know why they call him Master.
After that, in 1989, he moved to Chicago, where after a short stint at Four Seasons, he became the wine director at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. A job which allowed him to combine on the highest level his passion for food and wine and where he also formed some of the most important, lifelong friendships in the field. In 1993 he came back to the West Coast to open Rubicon in San Francisco. Its wine list quickly became its biggest attraction. Through his reputation and connections, Stone managed to amass an impressive collection of wines, some directly from legendary wineries like DRC, Jayer, and Gaja. I still have a copy of it, over 60 pages, close to 2,000 different labels of absolute gems from all over the wine-growing world with wines going back to the 19th century. In 2006, he left Rubicon to become the general manager of Rubicon Estate winery in Rutherford, Napa Valley, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. After that, there was the Quintessa winery, and then he turned to hands-on wine making full time. In 2006-2007, the Willamette Valley project, Evening Land, was created with Larry as a consultant. Larry left the project a few years after, but Oregon’s Willamette Valley remained as his target for future wine making.
Lingua Franca, Mr. Stone’s newest, most ambitious project in terms of scope seems to be the culmination of his wine journey. It is a Willamette Valley winery. Situated in the Eola-Amity sub-appellation, its neighbors are some of the best historic vineyards of the region, Seven Springs, Lone Star, and Jerusalem Hill. Stone set his sights on this very coveted piece of land called Janzen farm in 2010. Planted with Pine, Cherry and Plum trees, the land had been owned by the Janzen family for decades. The owner had refused to sell the property to numerous wineries in the past. Larry had the patience to negotiate over two years and finally bought this 150-acre, prime, east-facing land in December of 2012. Initially, the plan was just to grow and sell the fruit. However, with the support and insistence from Dominique Lafon, one of the leading white Burgundy producers, the decision was made to found a winery. Larry partnered up with Lafon and hired a young, talented Frenchman, Thomas Savre, to make his wines. “Willamette Valley is an ideal location to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,”, Mr. Stone said.
“Its average seasonal temperatures combined with long daylight hours during the growing season and total annual rainfall resemble the conditions in Burgundy, where the fruit attains uncontested perfection”. The first vines were planted in 2013, and the first 2015 vintage was made at a custom crush facility from grapes purchased from one of the best vineyards in the region. That first vintage also made Larry realize that to have full control over the wine making process, he needed to build a winery. The construction started in early 2016. Lingua Franca, “honest language” in Latin, refers to a common language, a universal tongue used by tradesmen in olden days. Wine, just like that language, triumphs over cultural and geographic differences bringing unity. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the sole grapes of the Lingua Franca label. Several different cuvées are released each year, most made from the estate fruit.
From the offset, Lingua Franca has implemented low-impact, organic and biodynamic farming practices. No-till farming with a cover crop improves soil structure and increases microbial and mycorrhizal activity. It is through this symbiotic interaction of fauna and flora and the focus on the preservation of the natural habitat of the land that the winery achieves the ultimate health of the vines and purity of flavors in the fruit. The team at Lingua Franca has a creative energy and the guidance and framework established by Larry. Having an exceptional and well-planted vineyard site is the magnet that attracted the talent. But, most importantly, he empowers talented people to have creative control over their own work.
I’ve had the privilege of tasting Lingua Franca wines on numerous occasions with the man himself. His understanding and knowledge of the vineyards, the wine making and the wines themselves are humbling. Yet, he speaks of them with the modesty and reverence of a person who merely lends his helping hand in this magical, nature-inspired process of making wine. The wines are flawlessly balanced with delicate fruit and savory flavors intermingling and persisting long after swallowed.
The winery is in its infancy but has already received the highest accolades and praises from wine publications and critics alike. Wine and Spirits magazine called Lingua Franca one of the top 100 wineries of 2018 and 2019. The wines have been hailed by Robert Parker and Jancis Robison and are featured on some of the best wine lists throughout the world.
One of the biggest legacies of Master Stone is his mentorship. Throughout his career, he has inspired a slew of young people in the hospitality business who went on to become top professionals of the wine trade. He mentored and curated numerous master sommeliers and influential wine personalities. He inspired people who never even met him.
Crossing paths with an individual can change another person’s life. That was definitely the case with me. Meeting Larry Stone, working with him, and continuing our friendship has been rewarding and inspirational. It has given me opportunities that few in the business are presented. I have tasted some of the rarest wines available, and through his contacts, I have traveled to most wine regions in the world, meeting some of the top personalities in the business.
Most importantly though, through the friendship I have been privileged to listen to him talk and share his wisdom. His universal knowledge and erudition transcendence wine and adds an extra layer, a philosophical dimension to the subject. He’s always been to me, the highest validation of this somewhat “skeptical” profession. He is a living proof that to fully know and understand wine is to know and understand history, chemistry, geology, geography, among other subjects but, most importantly it is to embrace and promote humanity at its best.