Family Tree

Under the Influence of Larry Stone

Peers and protégés reflect on how the wine virtuoso’s keen intellect and generous spirit impacted their careers

Photo of Larry Stone
Photo by Nancy Stone.

Years ago, Chris Meeske, who today owns Mission Wines in South Pasadena, California, was working as a sommelier at a star-studded event called Masters of Food & Wine. Between dodging distracted waiters and pouring from fine bottles, Meeske snuck back to the kitchen, curious to see the man of the evening, legendary chef Charlie Trotter, at work.

In the kitchen, Meeske did a double take—not at the sight of Trotter but of his sous-chef, clad in white, head down, chopping mirepoix. “I said to the director of wine for the event, ‘Hey, man, do you know who that is? That’s Larry Stone! He just got his MS and won the World’s Best Sommelier title in Paris!’”

Larry Stone was—and still is—a virtuoso. He could have been a headliner at that event, his name listed alongside Trotter’s. But Stone, who has every right to be a prima donna, was prepping carrots.

Despite possessing one of the best-known names in the industry and arguably the most astounding intellect in the enosphere, Stone is unfailingly described by his peers and protégés with the same words: “humble,” “a workhorse,” and “incredibly generous.”

Within the wine world, Stone’s social circle is a Who’s Who, his personal timeline a Greatest Hits compilation. In 1979, he judged at the coming-out event for the pioneers of Oregon wine, a tasting of the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest. In 1980 he assisted the great André Tchelistcheff and Allen Shoup in determining blends at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He dined with Julia Child and Angelo Pellegrini, he hobnobbed with Darrell Corti, he flew on the Concorde, delivering lectures on Bordeaux. Oh, and he kicked Madonna out of the dining room at Seattle’s Four Seasons Olympic back in her Material Girl era. (She was provoking some kindly elderly customers, and they were regulars.)

In San Francisco in the 1990s, Stone teamed up with Drew Nieporent to open a restaurant with the financial backing of Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Stone had also reached out to film directors-cum-winery owners Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola through the winemaker Tony Soter. The Coppolas came on as investors too, and the restaurant was named Rubicon, after the signature Coppola wine.

Stone would go on to serve on the board of directors and then take over as gérant of the Niebaum-Coppola winery, now Inglenook. At first, the facility was nothing more than a pile of casks and and barrels in the corner of a carriage house, a small building shared with a soundstage and film editors. (Stone recalls shutting down winemaking operations one day so the Doobie Brothers could record.) By the end of the Stone era, the winery occupied the grand and historic Inglenook Chateau.

Somehow during that time, Stone also ran a négociant firm, Deux Chapeaux, with fellow star sommelier Daniel Johnnes; owned and sold a Napa Valley winery, Sirita; and served as estate director and consultant for Agustin Huneeus, focusing on QuintessaFaust, and Flowers.

By 2010, Stone was at the forefront of the expatriate winemaking movement that brought Burgundy’s brightest stars to Oregon. As president of Evening Land Vineyards, he collaborated with master winemaker Dominique Lafon. Today a former protégé of Stone’s, Rajat Parr, runs Evening Land, and Stone and Lafon have moved next door, to their own winemaking project in the Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills, Lingua Franca.

At Lingua Franca, Lafon oversees the vineyard and winery, advising on-the-ground winemaker Thomas Savre, who earned his stripes at Evening Land after working stints at such sacred institutions as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Dujac, and Maison Nicolas Potel. Stone and his business partner David Honig manage financial, sales, and marketing matters. “I have been involved directly and indirectly in other wine businesses for close to 20 years,” says Honig. “I have never seen as much talent, star power, commitment, and passion in one place.”

In an unheard-of feat for an American wine, the first vintage of Lingua Franca has already been acquired by the Parisian restaurants Taillevent and Alain Ducasse’s Spoon. In addition, Stone confided to me, the renowned sommelier Paz Levinson placed an order for her Parisian restaurant, Virtus.

An American wine label in Paris? Right out of the gate? Yes—if it’s silky, subtle, place-driven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made by Lafon, Savre, and Stone.

Lingua Franca
Photo by Nancy Stone Nilsen.

Lingua Franca is, to Stone, everything. It’s what he wants to be known for—as the director of a great winery, not as a great man. But his admirers still see him as Larry Stone, Master Sommelier—the gracious, omniscient presence at Rubicon, Charlie Trotter’s, and both the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons in Chicago, to name just a few high points.

At every stop in his career, Stone has mentored disciples who have gone on to their own successes—and not just wine-industry stars like Shelley Lindgren and Jason Smith. Great chefs, like Charlie Trotter, Traci Des JardinsRyan Hardy, and Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, have credited Stone with tutoring them in the art of pairing. “He has so much knowledge to share,” says Des Jardins. “He has taught so many of us.”

As a somm, Stone had—and still has—high standards. His mentees describe his service style as “pristine” and “meticulous,” with “a level of detail you don’t see anymore.” Bernie Sun, the luxury accounts manager at Kobrand Corporation and a former beverage director for Jean-Georges Restaurants, recalls a time when Stone ran to the kitchen to borrow a cook’s thermometer from a chef in order to assure a winemaker that his wine was being served at precisely the right temperature.

At the same time, Stone is anything but persnickety with customers. He is the somm who takes the time to listen and to try to understand, since—let’s face it—most diners lack the language to describe precisely what they want. “Being on the floor is, for some people, the least important and least pleasurable part of their job,” Stone tells me. “And those people really shouldn’t be sommeliers. A sommelier really needs to connect in a way that is very simple. Most people coming to the restaurant know nothing about wine and in fact are probably intimidated by you.

“And you can’t just read a person by the way they dress or act,” he adds. “One time, a guy in a cowboy hat came in with his extended family and ordered Diet Pepsis all around. The waiter said to me, ‘That guy asked for a wine list; should I really bring him one?’ I said, ‘I’ll take this.’” The customer turned out to be a fan of Opus One and, after chatting with Stone, ordered the label’s very first vintage. “Conversely, you can’t assume that because someone wears a good watch or drives a nice car, they are going to know good wine,” Stone concludes. “That is a fallacy.”

It’s the cognizant perspective of a man who grew up the child of refugees from Romania and Austria. Stone’s beginnings were humble, but they provided an ideal training for a future tastemaker. His mother was a cheesemaker, and his father was a produce buyer at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. In the 1950s and early ’60s, while the rest of America was fixated on TV dinners, young Lawrence Stone was able to identify different varieties of apples, beans, and lentils.

“My mother taught me how to taste,” Stone recalls. “She would say, ‘This sauce is okay, but I put too much carrot in the stock—it’s just a little out of balance.’ Then she would add acid or salt to correct it.” Before long, Stone was whisking up his own vinaigrette in his primary-school cafeteria, and by the time he got to high school, he was working his way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, recipe by recipe.

An uncle noticed young Larry’s remarkable palate and started the boy on blind wine tastings at an alarmingly precocious age. “By the time I was seven, I could figure out the grape variety and what it was by the color and by the smell,” Stone recalls. As he grew older, Stone developed a passion for science that enabled him, at 14, to make wine at home—he vinified apple juice concentrate in such a way that it passed for a good German Riesling, not only in its youth but when he poured it for colleagues a decade later.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, Stone was a National Merit Scholar who studied abroad in Montpellier, France, and Vienna. He started his college career by majoring in chemistry, was sidetracked by art and music, and ended up pursuing a doctorate in comparative literature, earning a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research in comparative literature at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Back in Seattle, Stone ditched his dissertation when he began making waves as a sommelier at a restaurant called The Red Cabbage. Shortly after being recruited by the Four Seasons in Seattle, Stone in 1988 became America’s ninth Master Sommelier, as well as the winner of the title Le Meilleur Sommelier International en Vins et Spiritueux de France. He had redirected his impressive intellect and photographic memory from academia to the faster-moving, better-paying world of restaurant management and wine service.

Because of that intellect, Stone is simultaneously a journalist’s dream and nightmare. His recall is precise, his learning prolific, his speech rapid, his anecdotes amusing. Sorting through the mountain of material I acquired to write this profile was a daunting, albeit pleasurable, task. And when I interviewed Stone, at the Hotel Lucia in Portland, Oregon, I learned more about Diam corks during the five-minute chat we had as we left the hotel than I had during my preceding 17 years of wine journalism. It’s no wonder that Stone has contributed to The Atlantic and other national publications.

“Larry has an incredible ability to retain facts, figures, knowledge of any kind—and not just about wine. It was always fun to try to stump him, but we never could,” recalls Rebecca Chapa, a wine educator and sommelier and the owner of Tannin Management in San Francisco. “He was never selfish with his information or his time. He cultivated an environment for learning: His weekly tastings were not only for servers or for employees of the restaurant. Many attended from the San Francisco community at large, and many of those folks have done amazing things in the industry.”

“The most remarkable thing about Larry is how generous he is,” says Christie Dufault, an associate professor of wine and beverage studies at the Culinary Institute of America. “I feel like I can ask him anything and he will answer so thoroughly and so thoughtfully. He is just relentlessly willing to share. He was the first person to call me and console me when I didn’t pass my Master Sommelier exam. He told me that he really believed in me and that I could do it.”

Dufault is so devoted to Stone that she asked him to officiate at her marriage to the wine journalist Jordan Mackay; five other couples in the food and wine industries, including Brioza and Krasinski, have done the same. “I didn’t take that job lightly,” Stone assures me when I ask him about this. “I always did marriage counseling with the couples before I would marry them.”

“He married my husband and me, and he is the godfather of one of my sons. He was there at the birth, and my son’s middle name is Lawrence, after Larry,” says Master Sommelier Sara Floyd, the San Francisco–based owner of Swirl Wine Brokers and Luli Wines. “It’s because of him that I decided I wanted to be a sommelier and then an MS. We all call him ‘Yoda’ and ‘Dean of the Sommeliers.’”

Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including the new Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One.

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